Friday, October 31, 2014

Fascinating Biology - A Schoolhouse Crew Review

In mid-September I learned that Fascinating Education was having the Schoolhouse Review Crew review their three science courses.

My son had already started studying Biology for his science this year, so I volunteered us to review their Fascinating Biology course. In our local schools, high school sciences generally go through the science courses in the following order: Biology, Chemistry, Physics (and then possibly another, such as Anatomy or Marine Biology or Computer Science). The courses go in this order because advanced mathematics are required for Chemistry, and students don't usually take advanced mathematics in 9th grade (when Biology is taken). They are often not taking Algebra II (the course I was told I needed if I wanted to take Chemistry) until 11th Grade, so the order might even go: Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, Physics.

So I was surprised to learn that Dr. Margulies, the creator of Fascinating Education, wants students to take Chemistry before they take Biology. However I had already started my son's year in Biology and he and I wanted him to continue in Biology for this year. My son doesn't yet grasp those advanced mathematical concepts. And I already purchased the Biology materials that we had already started on, that we would fall back on if Fascinating Biology didn't work out for us, or that I could use to supplement the Fascinating Biology materials. I do not own anything on Chemistry yet, so I went ahead and requested Biology.

Well, Dr. Margulies and the folks feel so strongly about the students studying Chemistry before they take Biology that they have a "crash course" in Chemistry for students to go through if they are taking Biology first. They feel so strongly about the importance of this grounding in Chemistry that they also provided the "Chemistry pre-Course for Biology" to Biology reviewers in addition to the Fascinating Biology for purposes of our reviews. That was fabulous of them!

Let me tell you a bit about Dr. Margulies.
To start with, he is a neurologist who attended not only medical school, but also law school. He has taught neurology to over 2500 medical students and residents, and has learned a lot about how the brain works: how we learn, how we focus our attention, how we retrieve information, and how emotion and motivation affect learning. And now he has turned his focus from teaching medicine to creating audio-visual materials for middle and high school students, in an effort to prepare them for careers in Science and in hopes to excite them about Science.

So we began our Fascinating Biology by working our way through the Chemistry pre-Course for Biology. The material is very cerebral. When you begin your lesson from the day, whether the pre-course or the main course, you begin on a page with a place to select which lesson you want to work on. This "thumbprint" (about 2"x2" - is that still called a "thumbprint"?) has a selection for "Lesson", "Script" and "Test". To start you want to either print on the Lesson button, or if you do better with a combination of audio/visual and print, first click on "Script" and print that out. You can follow the printed script as Dr. Margulies works his way through the audio for the day. After watching the video, it is time to take the test.

I like the way Dr. Margulies has the course set up, particularly the testing. His perspective (and it is also my perspective) is that it is not about the grade, it is about mastery of the content. Therefore, when the student takes the test, he/she is then permitted to review the incorrect answers, be informed of the correct answers, and retake the test. This makes perfect sense. Learning is the goal.

So, as we finished the first lesson I had my son take the test. I suggested that he think a bit more about some of the answers he had selected, but nevertheless he just whizzed through and submitted his answers. His score reflected that he did poorly. He became angry and frustrated, pushing violently away from the computer, calling the program "stupid" and threatening to never do this science again. I calmed him down. I showed him that, with his score, he had been given the option to review the test, and after that to take the test again. He grumbled, but he did the review and the retest and scored well. Then he revealed that he had not scored well by studying the material, but rather by memorizing what the answers were for the ten questions given (like 1=B, 2=D, 3=A, etc.). I sighed and told him that was not the goal, but rather the goal was to learn the material. He sighed and went back and reviewed the test again, studied the material, and passed the test. I don't think he did that answer-memorization technique again, but I can't be entirely certain.

The portion of Fascinating Biology that I watched with my son covered its material in a way that I thoroughly understood. The information covered came so much so fast that I wished I were taking notes. My son was also not taking notes. I need to help him work on that; I think he will get much more out of some of his studies if he takes notes on the material covered in a lecture.

I didn't watch all that much (and have already forgotten part of it), and am an adult who never studied Biology in high school or college. Nevertheless, here I was understanding osmosis, cell membranes, etc. not to mention having a glimmer of an understanding why certain elements cling to other elements based on the number of electrons on the outer ring needing and wanting to be at the magic number "eight". I also learned that the atomic number is based on the number of protons in the nucleus, and as the weight of the nucleus goes up, the atomic weight goes down. (Now I'm feeling like I surely got part of this wrong, and therefore shouldn't have said any of this, but seriously, I find all this new science information fascinating! I'm interested! And so is my son!)

I like about the tests that they require 80% correct for the student to move on. I like that the student can review and retake the test until he/she passes. The student then has the opportunity to print the test results for their records and/or for the parent/teacher records.

Do I have anything I would recommend be changed? I'm so glad you asked!
  1. First, I'd like it if the lessons had some way that they indicated when the lesson has been completed. I'd like it if the lesson thumbnail went slightly blurry or slightly gray, was still accessible, but was indicating that the student had watched the lesson and passed the test.
  2. I would like if if the window the computer moves to, when the student is watching the lesson, had buttons on it for opening the script or taking the test. The way the program is currently set up, when you are done watching the video, it stops. The student then has to close that window and return to the initial lesson launching window to take the test.
  3. I would like for the program to save and compile the test results in one place for the teacher to access later, if needed. This way each test's results do not have to be saved and/or printed by the student or parent.
  4. I would love it if the program could send a weekly email to the teacher telling what Lesson(s) the student completed during the week, what test(s), how many times, and the score each time.
If you read my blog much, you know my son doesn't like History and Literature much. My son is good at Math, but doesn't like it. My son is a Science Guy.

Being a Science Guy, he is, nevertheless, selective in what he likes. And he is SO selective that I am always pleasantly surprised when he likes a product that we review.

My son likes Fascinating Biology, and to me that is just fascinating!

So where will we go from here with our Biology? Fascinating Biology is said to have improved Science scores for Baltimore, Maryland students, which really appeals to me.  The website's FAQs says, "Fascinating Chemistry, Fascinating Biology, and Fascinating Physics are all designed to cover what you would normally expect to find in a high school course. That said, we have many students in middle school who take Fascinating Chemistry and Biology and do very well."

What I DO know is that my son likes Fascinating Biology. And that is a good great thing! I chatted with him this morning. The verdict is in. He wants to ditch the other Biology program and stick with Fascinating Biology for the rest of 9th grade. He really, really likes it and feels that he is learning a lot.

For purposes of this review we received a full 12-months access to the Fascinating Biology website. 12-month access to Fascinating Biology costs a very affordable $79! Fascinating Biology is designed to cover what you would normally expect to find in a high school course, but many students in middle school who take Fascinating Chemistry and Biology and do very well.

Other members of the Schoolhouse Review Crew also reviewed Fascinating Biology or Fascinating Chemistry or Fascinating Physics. 
To read more reviews, please click on the button below.

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