Biology Professors Use Cloud Computing to Reach Students

To help reduce the number of dropouts in freshman biology courses, professors at the University at Buffalo have turned to the power of collaboration and cloud computing to build an online teaching tool designed to explain concepts better than a textbook can.

The tool, called Pop!World, provides a visual way to map evolution. It’s the work of Bina Ramaurthy, a research associate professor in the department of computer science and engineering; Jessica Poulin, a research assistant professor in the department of biological sciences; and Katharina Dittmar, an assistant professor of biological sciences.

Cloud computing allows for different levels of network resources to be devoted to Pop!World based on the number of students using it, Ms. Ramaurthy says.

The addition of Pop!World, which will serve as a lab component, is part of a redevelopment of the freshman biology curriculum that aims both to address attrition and to add mathematical rigor to the program, Ms. Poulin says.

The hope is that it will visually engage students. “Teaching from a text gets boring to them,” says Ms. Ramaurthy.

Though Pop!World has been used for only one semester on the campus, which is part of the State University of New York, Ms. Poulin says she already sees the effects. On a survey of students who were retaking freshman biology during the fall semester, and thus had experienced the course with and without Pop!World, positive reviews of Pop!World, she says, were “off the charts.”

Ms. Ramaurthy noticed that when homework using Pop!World was assigned, many students tried to complete it days before the due date, while the same students left regular homework untouched until the day before the deadline. That “provides a window into student thinking,” she says.

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