Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fascinating Education: Biology (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

Fascinating Education is an online science curriculum created by Sheldon Margulies, MD that offers online science for middle and high school students.  Dr. Margulies has used his experience as a neurologist to create a learning program that he feels is optimized for learning, combining how the brain focuses, stores and retrieves information, and how emotion and motivation affect how we learn.  The program offers courses in biology, chemistry and physics.  In our area, biology is the usual choice for a Freshman science course, so Matthew chose to work on the Fascinating Biology course for our review. (Note: The program suggests you start with Chemistry first, and follow with Biology then Physics, but it is possible to complete them in any order.)  We received a one-year, one course membership, but there are combination packages that offer savings for students moving at a faster pace.)

The Biology course consists of eighteen chapter-like lessons.  They generally follow a logical order of presentation.  The earliest chapters begin with the basics of biology and cells, and then segue into how a cell takes on nutrients, converts them to energy, and then reproduces and/or adapts to environment.  (Note: There is a section on the theory of evolution; this is NOT a creationist based program.)   At the end is the study of specific types of life forms.

Fascinating Education Review

I had high hopes for this program, because it promised to provide visual and auditory stimulation for learning.  However, Matthew's succinct summation of the program was, "It's boring."  The presentation consisted of a monotonous tone lecture combined with a power-point style slides. Graphics in the slides were high quality and saturated with color, but not particularly exciting.  The program claims to leave the "read the textbook" style of teaching behind, but Matthew felt that instead of him reading a textbook, it was being read to him. On more than one occasion, I found him mentally checking out while the lessons were playing.  Cementing my opinion that the motonone was not going to work for our family was when I found myself starting to doze while Matthew was studying. I may be sleep deprived, but I started my college career as a Biology/Pre-Med student.  I find biology fascinating and have continued to study biology and medicine despite ultimately earning an arts degree.  I just couldn't keep myself from nodding off when the audio was playing.

There also is no formal laboratory program to go with the program, so if you have a lab requirement for your state, or a student who understands concepts better with tactile learning, you will need to supplement a lab program. We actually found it difficult to implement a lab program for several reasons.  One was that most high school biology courses are self-contained and don't seem to have stand-alone lab programs.  The other reason is that the "fun" stuff - living creatures - weren't until the end.  Rather than studying a concept in the context of a creature, Matthew found the program overwhelming because many of the lessons were unanchored ideas.  We finally found a lab program that we thought would work, but it was difficult to align labs and theory because of the course trajectory.

There is a printable transcript and testing options, but no other supporting material.  The chapters follow a logical sequence, but most have a large number of slides in each chapter.  "One or two a day" didn't seem like sufficient progress/time involved, but there is a huge amount of information in each.   Online tests are offered for each chapter, but scores are not recorded.  (There is a printable version as well.) Matthew found the tests overwhelming, because of an uneven ratio of content to test questions.  This particular chapter showed 21 sections of the lesson, but then had only a 10 question test.  Matthew was overwhelmed studying because he had no idea what to prioritize; I felt that there should be at least one "summary" style question for each section to be sure the student grasped the concept of it.    I don't think that a program should teach "to the test," but I do think that hallmarks of good evaluation are knowing what is key information and what is "simply good to know," conveying that to the student, and providing enough opportunity for the student to demonstrate what he has learned.

Overall, I think Fascinating Biology is packed with lots of information on the living world around us. However, I think the presentation was wrong for our family.  It could work for a child who is an auditory learner who thrives when ideas are presented in a clear but even cadence, but a "lecture at me" style of learning is not ideal for Matthew. Though there is a lot of theory presented, I believe that in order to be a college-prep high school science credit, a lab component needs to be given, and finding an adjunct program was very difficult.  Unfortunately, this program just wasn't a good fit for our family.

To read other Crew Reviews about Fascinating Biology, Fascinating Chemistry, and Fascinating Physics, click the banner below.

Fascinating Education Review

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