May 05, 2005

Associate professor of plant biology Ebbs honored for efforts to engage students

by K.C. Jaehnig


Stephen D. Ebbs

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Stephen D. Ebbs, an associate professor of plant biology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who grew up in Benton and Virden, has won the University's first campus-wide honor for faculty members teaching in SIUC's core curriculum — a set of broadly based foundation courses that impart skills and knowledge all students need to become educated citizens in a global society.

Ebbs received $2,000 through SIUC's "Excellence Through Commitment Awards Program," set up by Chancellor Walter V. Wendler to reward ongoing contributions by tenured and term faculty, staff and graduate assistants throughout the University. The program reflects SIUC's aim of encouraging outstanding work, one of the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Wendler hosted a dinner to honor all award recipients April 21.

Ebbs teaches a basic plant biology course that draws some 240 non-majors each term to lectures that include everything from popular "science fiction" film and TV clips to governmental Web sites to specially produced color animations of complex biological processes.

"My goal is to equip students with a basic knowledge of biological concepts," Ebbs wrote in a statement summarizing his teaching philosophy.

"That knowledge base should allow them to pick up the science section of the Sunday paper or watch a news segment on a television news magazine and have at least a rudimentary ability to comprehend the meaning and importance of that information."

Recognizing that student interest in required classes outside their majors often flags, Ebbs works at ensuring that students see a link between the scientific principles and real-world concepts.

"I strive in every lecture to answer for the students the following question: ‘Why spend time on this?'" he wrote.

Ebbs generally begins his lectures with video clips from such pop culture sources as "Jurassic Park," "The Matrix," "Star Wars, Episode II," "Star Trek" and the like to help students find the "science" in "science fiction" — and to have a little fun.

"That breaks down barriers between the students and instructor, and these media sources include informative and entertaining examples of the concepts discussed in lecture," Ebbs wrote. For example, a "Star Trek" clip of the crew discovering a silicon-based life form led easily into a discussion of the importance of carbon and how our bodies use it.

The videos, paired with information from some 30 government Web sites, also get discussion going. The film "X-Men," for example, with its storyline involving genetics, sex-linked traits and mutations, fit right in with the National Institute of Health's Human Genome Project page.

Ebbs decided to develop the animations — an ongoing project — after realizing that many students learn and retain more from pictures than from words. Textbook publishers often post such animations on their Web sites but at an additional cost, and they often require an additional fee to view.

"They are generally not utilized by students who purchase used textbooks," Ebbs noted.

"Since students frequently struggle in non-majors biology courses, the difficulty in gaining access to such resources puts these students at a disadvantage."

Plant Biology Chair Dale H. Vitt, who nominated Ebbs for the award, noted that Ebbs' student evaluations have risen consistently each of the six terms he has taught the course.

"His idea of bringing the real world of everyday problems to the non-science major has, I think, developed into one of the best core courses at SIUC," he wrote.

"The ‘pre-Ebbs era' was one where the course presented to the students classical ‘biology,' and class attendance was poor and interest seemingly not high. I have attended his lectures in Lawson 161 where the course is taught, and it is nearly full, meaning over 200 students are there for each lecture.

"They enjoy learning about really complicated topics such as biotechnology and biochemical pathways, and tackling controversial topics such as cloning, evolution and deforestation. They are leaving with a flavor of science and how it influences their daily life."

Ebbs described this core course as "the most challenging and rewarding" of all the courses he has taught over his 13-year career.

"I make every effort to make this course an equally rewarding experience for the students involved," he wrote.

Ebbs joined the SIUC faculty in 1999. He earned his bachelor's in 1990 from McKendree College in Lebanon and master's and doctoral degrees in 1995 and 1997 respectively from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.