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Department of Biology

Innovative quests teach Fresno State biology students about science

Emily WalterDr. Emily Walter, Department of Biology at Fresno State, was recognized as a faculty member who found innovative ways to teach classes during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.   

She has been selected as a recipient of the Fall 2020 Provost’s Award for Extraordinary Teaching in Extraordinary Times in the category of Innovative Teaching.   

In Fall 2020, Dr. Walter pioneered a new frontier with her 141-person section of BIOL 10 by incorporating mini-project “quests.” The projects get students involved in science with assignments such as, “Take us on a photo or video tour featuring 10 animals or plants in your backyard, farm, or neighborhood.”

The quests are designed to increase students’ knowledge of local and worldwide scientific issues. The innovative assignments encourage students to spend time in nature and apply science in everyday life. Students complete three quests from a list of 17 unique quests, then generate creative products, such as iMovie videos, to complete the quest. Products include a kids’ book “read-aloud” featuring a diverse character doing science, poetry, nature sketches, a fossil layer cake, a meat replacement cooking vlog, a video game museum tour, and a backyard documentary.

“The entire quest assignment was really uplifting for me as a professor, as the students’ reflections really showed how much it meant for them -- it was far better than grading quizzes or more papers,” Dr. Walter said.  

Quests are themed so students can specialize in different “skill trees.” Skill trees earn students “achievements” worth extra credit. For example, students can complete a skill tree by doing three quests that focus on Animals, Plants, Cooking, Tree Hugging (eco-friendly behavior), or the Arts. Students can earn additional bonus points by sharing how they involved family or friends in their quest, or by creating their quest product in English and any other language.   

Animal Crossing Museum Tour"I was moved by reading, watching, and experiencing the students' quests,” she said. “I have wanted to employ creative assignment formats in my courses for a long time. After reflecting on the importance of combining real-life relevance into science, especially during a time when science is so important, I decided to go for it in Biology 10.”

The course turned out to be a growing experience for her as well as for her students.

“One of the biggest surprises for me was that grading the assignments brought me a lot of joy and excitement,” she said. “Quest after quest, students commented on how they felt happier, calmer, more accomplished, connected with others, and in wonder of nature.”

Several assignments also brought her to tears, such as one student's reading of the book "Doc Like Mommy."

“As a mom of three, I felt very connected to my student who had written so eloquently about the struggle of women in STEM,” she said, “I do not think I have ever had such complex and awesome emotions when grading before. I was so proud of the students, and I am glad that I pushed myself to go for it and create this unique and creative assignment."

Dr. Walter is also involved in a research project in science education that has been taking her to Egypt for some amazing work.

See below for examples of her students’ work: