In my experiences as a university student, a graduate teaching assistant, and a university professor I have come to believe that biology students should be able to observe and describe the natural world, formulate hypotheses and develop tests from these observations, and be able to communicate their observations and results.  In order to teach biology students to be scientists, we need to teach them to learn as scientists learn.  Science progresses by problem solving and this should drive the learning of science.  This requires a combination of traditional approaches to pedagogy to active learning in the classroom and the laboratory.

At Yale University I have developed two courses for undergraduates, Ichthyology and Phylogenetics & Macroevolution.

Ichthyology E&EB 264a (664a). A survey of fish diversity, including jawless vertebrates, chimaeras and sharks, lungfishes, and ray-finned fishes. Topics include the evolutionary origin of vertebrates, the fossil record of fishes, evolutionary diversification of major extant fish lineages, biogeography, ecology, and reproductive strategies of fishes.

A fish is defined as any vertebrate that is not a tetrapod (amphibians, lizards and snakes, turtles, birds and crocodiles, and mammals).  This course provides a general overview of the biology and diversity of all major groups of fishes through lectures, laboratory exercises using preserved fish specimens, and one or two local field trips to collect fishes in both freshwater and marine habitats.  Fishes are very important organisms in both the historical and contemporary study of ecology and evolutionary biology, and important topics in these areas, as exemplified in the diversity of fishes, will be consistently emphasized in this course.

Since most vertebrates are fishes, ichthyology will cover the evolution and origin of most of the major vertebrate lineages.  This includes discussion of the origin of jaws and its significance in the evolution of feeding diversity, examination of extinct fossil lineages that offer key clues to understanding the origin of vertebrate diversity, processes of speciation and evolutionary lineage diversification, ecological and historical biogeography, and a thorough review of the extant lineages that comprise the fish “Tree of Life.”  Other topics include, physiological, ecological, and reproductive diversity of fishes.

Through the course readings, I offer guidance to students in navigating the scientific literature on fishes and provide exposure to cutting-edge scientific studies.

I try to integrate the rich scholastic and natural history tradition of ichthyology with modern day scientific investigations of physiology, ecology, ethology, and evolutionary biology.  A commentary from a Yale College student in Ichthyology:

I would recommend this class to anyone, but especially to people in positions similar to mine: liberal arts majors seeking to fulfill the science requirement. While it certainly isn’t a gut class, and requires participation, study, and research, I would say that the material is interesting enough, and interestingly taught, such that it provides a strong supplement to a liberal arts education. I took the class with some vague vision of eccentric 19th century naturalists in my mind’s eye: to some extent I was mistaken, as there’s a lot more interface with modern science, particularly on the genetic side of things, than I had thought. At the same time, ichthyology and evolutionary biology in general seem to have evaded the trap of overspecialization which I think afflicts some of the other sciences, and in simply cataloguing and observing these bizarre creatures called fish, requires formidable interdisciplinary efforts, the observation of which can provide liberal arts majors with a comprehensive picture of science in action.

This course was offered for the first time in the Fall 2006 term. 

Phylogenetics & Macroevolution E&EB 426 (626)Theory and methodology of phylogenetics and the application of phylogenetic trees to the comparative study of biological variation observed in living and fossil organisms.  Topics include biogeography, speciation, adaptive radiation, estimation of divergence times and “molecular clock” methods, rates of lineage diversification, and phylogeny of genes, species, and higher taxa.

In the last 20 years the tools of phylogeny reconstruction have had a dramatic impact on evolutionary biology. This course describes the methods of phylogenetic inference, provides the student with practical experience in reconstructing evolutionary histories from comparative data, especially molecular sequence data, and applies these techniques to understanding selected issues in macroevolution—evolution above the species level. Phylogenetics has become the organizing principle for macroevolutionary studies, and it has provided new levels of quantitative understanding and rigor, especially in problems relating to the tempo and mode of evolutionary change. The course will emphasize development of quantitative skills, conceptual understanding, and appreciation for biological examples ranging from the evolution of viral pathogens, to the origin of major clades of animals and green plants. 

The course is roughly divided into three sections:  the first is an introduction to “tree thinking,” the second part covers the theory and methods of phylogeny reconstruction, and the third covers phylogenetic approaches to studying macroevolutionary patterns.

This course was offered for the first time in the Fall 2008 semester.