On a chilly September morning, Hallie Hanson found herself in the middle of a tallgrass prairie. As plants rustled in the breeze, she made her way, notebook and pen in hand, through the dense, wild environment.
“I just went deep in,” recalls the sophomore. “First, I found this tiny plant flowering around plants that were taller than me. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a hardy little guy.’”
It was just the first week of the fall semester, yet Hanson was already immersed — literally and figuratively — in the Biocore experience.
Founded 50 years ago, Biocore is an honors biology program that instills in students the abilities to communicate scientifically, work collaboratively, value research and the process of science and understand the integrative nature of biology. Since 1967, the four-semester, 18-credit program administered by the College of Letters & Science has prepared roughly 7,500 undergraduates for futures in science and far beyond. And for the past 20 years, the experience has started in the prairie.
Little Lab on the Prairie
The 12-acre Biocore Prairie was an abandoned field until 1997, when the program’s staff and students embarked on the slow and laborious project of restoring it to a tallgrass prairie. Today it’s a living laboratory for the 88 students enrolled in the first semester of Biocore.
To reach this parcel of land, located west of Picnic Point within the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, students must travel beyond their normal campus routes. It’s a subtle but significant signal that Biocore will push them out of their comfort zones over the next two years.
After associate director Janet Batzli welcomes students to “the biggest and most beautiful classroom on the UW campus,” she and fellow instructors and TAs lead the students on a “five-senses tour” before breaking them into groups and letting them loose to explore and take notes. Their observations ultimately become questions that they put to the test through on-site experiments in the following weeks.
While it may sound simple enough, the process can come as a shock to students. It certainly did to Ziheng Zhang, a junior from Shenzhen, China, majoring in biology.
Most science instruction in China is test-prep-based and mainly conducted in a classroom, Zhang says. And even laboratory courses like first-semester honors chemistry at UW-Madison involved following instructions to achieve results. Not so with Biocore.
“At first I was a little baffled,” he says of wandering through the prairie. “I didn’t quite feel like I was in a lab course.”
But Zhang quickly learned how to turn something that piqued his interest into a testable question and develop a team project out of it. He loved that he wasn’t just replicating an experiment or confirming a conclusion; he was discovering something new.
“That was actually ingrained in every one of our projects,” he says. “They wanted us to ask, what is the cool factor, what is the knowledge gap, how is this useful?
Hanson, a math and biochemistry student from Waterford, Wisconsin, appreciates the open-ended approach. “This is all up to you — what inspires you,” she says.
While roaming the prairie on that early September day, she noticed some rust fungus on goldenrod, a notoriously invasive species. Her team decided to investigate the potential of the fungus to control the goldenrod. They picked some infected leaves, used a mortar and pestle to grind them down and then applied the fungus to non-infected goldenrod. They weren’t sure the fungus would inoculate, but it did!
“Questioning is at the heart of authentic learning,” says Biocore lab manager Seth McGee. “If students are genuinely curious about something, they’re automatically engaged. When students are questioning, they’re wanting to learn. That results in a much richer experience compared to when they’re being told to learn.”
Questioning is at the heart of authentic learning. If students are genuinely curious about something, they’re automatically engaged. When students are questioning, they’re wanting to learn.
A Radical Experiment
The Biocore approach was hardly the norm when the program launched in 1967. Much scientific teaching of the day was rote, Batzli says, but faculty at UW-Madison were thinking bigger, inspired by a spirit of discovery and innovation happening around the world. They devised a program that would give students hands-on lab experience and push them to recognize connections across biological systems and explore the “why” of science.
Integration has always been a hallmark of the program, considered to be the only two-year, cohort-model community and curriculum of its kind. Through lecture courses and labs, an exploration of evolution, ecology and genetics in the first semester leads to a focus on cellular biology in the second and then organismal biology in the third. In the final fourth semester, the work culminates in a capstone course on biological interactions.
Jeff Hardin, chair and professor of Integrative Biology and faculty director of Biocore since 2002, says the intensity of the program attracts talented, driven students.
“They are tremendous, they are incredibly motivated and they are all in for the Biocore way of life,” he says. “Their commitment on the front end reflects on the kind of students they are.”
And Hardin and the program’s staff take pride in seeing students transform through the Biocore experience, ultimately letting curiosity drive much of their learning.
But they don’t do it alone. Throughout the Biocore experience, students work collaboratively — a method modeled by Biocore staff, TAs, undergraduate TAs and the roughly dozen faculty from across the university who volunteer to teach courses — and learn to question and critique one another’s work.
Students are constantly challenged to explain their thinking, Batzli says, and they learn that all ideas are up for debate and discourse. Staff are ready to guide with best practices, theories, their own experience or additional queries. “It’s about the questions,” Batzli says. “It’s teaching through the questions.”
Biocore alums gain a learning mindset that fundamentally transforms the way they think about the world.
Not surprisingly, Biocore leaves a mark on students. Batzli says that more than 90 percent of participants report that given the chance to do it over, they would take Biocore again.
Many Biocore alumni stay in touch with staff, often sharing stories of how the program changed how they approached subsequent classes, graduate school, careers or other aspects of their lives, whether they became scientists, doctors or something else entirely.
“Of course, alums of Biocore have learned and gained a sophisticated understanding of the fundamental and emerging concepts of biology,” Batzli says. “But the real impact goes well beyond that. Biocore alums gain a learning mindset that fundamentally transforms the way they think about the world — a mindset of curiosity and the capacity to use the process of science and think critically to approach new problems more holistically.”