Biology Is Better With Questions

In biology, there are a lot of facts and memorization. Doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of room for imagination, right? But what if students were able to use these facts to fix the present and imagine the future?

Turns out they are, and they’re doing it through Packback Questions.

We find that a lot of professors are surprised to see their students asking such engaging questions, especially when it comes to biology. But students have shown to be very curious about how the science of life applies to their lives.

Here’s one example of a Clemson University student relating a local news story to what he’s learned in biology:

This student continues:

This is a news article that I found while skimming the news today. It is from WYFF in Greenville and is very relevant to our area. The article is warning patients who had open heart surgery at St. Francis or MUSC. They could have been exposed to Mycobacterium chimaera from heater-cooler devices that were contaminated during the manufacturing process. No cases have been reported, but the hospitals want to warn patients. It is an interesting read, but it seems no one should be worried about getting an infection.


It’s a great question that asks for deeper understanding and insights by tackling a relevant issue in the community.

Many classes stress on remembering and being able to recite the fundamental structures in biology. While important, interacting with only what has already been discovered is not all that helpful for curiosity.

The curious mind wants to connect the biological dots, talk about what is possible and figure out how to use that knowledge to build a better future.

By doing so, students can reach a higher level of critical thinking based on Bloom’s Taxonomy for learning.

To explain this, let’s walk through the timeline of how this question came to be and what levels of critical thought the student has practiced.

The student happened to catch an article in his news feed about how open heart surgery patients at a local hospital could have been infected with Mycobacterium chimaera. This is him remembering and understanding the facts about infections and then applying it to a real world problem. He shows uncertainty as he analyzes the article. He’s voicing concern, but wants to gather more data from the class to test his hypothesis of whether or not this story is a cause for alarm.He has yet to evaluate the situation based on his current knowledge, but he has created a dialogue questioning the magnitude of the bacteria infection.

This student is actively taking a part in his education by fusing real world problems with material learned in class.

Many professors may feel like it’s a struggle to get their students to become “active learners.” But this student is engaging the class. And he’s starting a chain reaction.

What happens next may contradict the idea that it’s hard to get students to become “active learners.” Here’s an example of a reply to the original question on the possible infection at this SC hospital:

As highlighted in the picture, this student knew nothing about Mycobacterium chimaera before the question was asked. But after researching online and learning more about the bacteria, this student was able to provide her evaluation of the problem:

It looks like infection can occur when contaminated water in the heating-cooling systems are aerosolized during open heart surgery.  I think it’s good that the hospital is warning the patients and explaining the symptoms to them just in case, because sometimes it takes a while for symptoms to start if you’ve been exposed.

Others took a similar interest in the question:

This second student brings in another source that relates to the history of Greenville and adds more context to the initial article that the question was based on. A third student contributes another source to the discussion as well:

This student analyzes this report and translates his understanding of it to his classmates adding more depth and knowledge:

The report also noted that testing for Mycobacterium chimaera is not standard protocol for surgical procedures. In addition, Mycobacterium chimaera has a long incubation period can often present itself a significant time (i.e., years) after the surgery occurs.

So just by asking the question, the original student incited three of his classmates to dig deeper and learn more.

This high level of critical thought is extremely common on Packback Questions.

When students answer questions so willingly and openly, other students get to analyze and evaluate multiple viewpoints and make their own judgment.

Additionally, by asking high-level questions that invite challenging, interesting discussion, the students create a community of curiosity around biology that is engaging and fun.

We believe that with Packback Questions, these students will carry more curiosity and higher critical thinking skills into whatever they choose to pursue.

Written by Evan Le


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