Twins combine interest in science, art

Sharing can be difficult for some siblings, but not for sophomores Jessica and Tiffany Blackburn. Not only do the twin sisters from Columbus, N.C., share the same dorm room, English class, and laugh, but they also share a dedicated interest in improving the way biology – their shared major – is taught and learned.

The Blackburn twins are playing an integral role in the ongoing development of BioBook, an interactive biology e-textbook designed to improve persistence and success in college-level science courses created by an interdisciplinary research team at Wake Forest. However, the e-book is teaching the sophomore biology majors much more than science, it has also enhanced their writing and drawing skills.

Learn more about BioBook

The Wake Forest team that created BioBook includes Biology Senior Lecturer Dan Johnson, Associate Professor of Physics Jed Macosko and Assistant Professor of Education Kristin Redington Bennett. Along with their strategic technology partner, Odigia, their work has gained national attention amidst a growing trend of mobile technology usage in the classroom.

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BioBook testing is ongoing with students taking college biology for non-majors at four local colleges and universities, and it will be publicly available for the 2012-2013 school year.

Jessica’s involvement since the summer of 2011 has been central to ensuring BioBook can be easily understood and interpreted by students at her “near peer” level. Her typical week might include spending three to four hours writing a chapter, or leaf as it is called in BioBook’s organizational structure, and another hour and a half editing existing sections. Jessica writes and edits topics ranging from genetics to fungi.

Until recently, Jessica was the only person on the core BioBook team not to have her Ph.D. (yet). Her faculty mentors credit her involvement as integral to the project’s success because she tells them when something doesn’t work from a student’s perspective.

“BioBook exercises my ability to simplify the dense scientific language to simple, plain language for non-biology majors,” said Jessica. “My writing style is simple and suits this project well.”

Jessica came to Wake Forest with an interest in biology but a greater interest in changing the way students learn the subject, especially after seeing so many of her high school classmates struggle through their introductory classes.

“I really enjoy this project because I think it is steering biology textbooks in the right direction with multimedia content, self-assessments and the ability to learn in whatever order makes sense,” said Jessica. “Also, I can write and be in the biology field but not necessarily work in a lab every day as a biology major.”

This semester, Jessica recruited her sister Tiffany, who is an art minor, to assist in creating custom illustrations to accompany the text her sister writes.

“Just like in writing, you can clutter images,” said Tiffany. “The main thing about illustrating for biology is I need to understand the sciences, determine what information is important to show, and know how to interpret original photos.”

Original illustration by Tiffany Blackburn

Original illustration by Tiffany Blackburn

Tiffany explains that each leaf in Biobook has at least two illustrations to supplement the text, which helps students with different learning styles absorb the information more readily. For each original illustration, Tiffany must find an appropriate base image to trace, sketch the details, and pick an easily distinguishable color scheme using Adobe Illustrator. The detailed drawing of mushroom including mycelium, or the hidden roots, took nearly five hours to complete.

But the sisters say the hard work and collaboration have been worthwhile for several reasons.

“It really makes you understand the sciences better,” said Tiffany. “Plus it’s fun to do with my sister. Our mom loves to say, ‘Look what my daughters are working on together.’”

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