Example Biology Discussion Prompts

Blue and red discussion bubbles.
Creating good discussion prompts is key to getting the students engaged and talking in an online class.  To get my students talking I like to let them have some say in the topics of their post.  This is one of the main principle of andragogy - letting students choose what they will be evaluated on.  There are a few ways I do this:
  • I ask students to read an article and then choose a couple sections to discuss in their post.
  • I ask students to research a topic and then choose a particular subtopic they are particularly interested in to elaborate on in their post.
  • I give them several questions related to the reading and let them choose one to write about.
  • I use simulations to engage students and encourage them to analyze class material.
Below are several of the discussion prompts that I enjoy discussing with my biology class.

1. Cellular Organelles 
There is a lot of activity in a cell! How does a cell work? What parts of a cell work together? This discussion will be based on the following simulation:

You are a primitive bacterial cell from an alien planet. During your trip in space you meet a trader named Zork. He is selling organelles and cellular structures from Earth. Wow! Your species has always dreamed of evolving into a multicellular organism like those found on Earth! You have 50 gold specs (GS) and want to purchase some of Zork’s supply. What will you purchase? Will you purchase everything you want at once, or will you try out one or two and come back for more later (can be generations later)? You can come back multiple times too.

Here is Zork’s inventory:
Fimbriae 5 GS
Nucleoid 5 GS
Capsule 5 GS
Flagella/Cilia 5 GS
Nucleus 10 GS
Ribosomes 10 GS
Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) 10 GS
Smooth ER 10 GS
Golgi Apparatus 15 GS
Lysosomes 10 GS
Vacuoles 10 GS
Peroxisomes 10 GS
Mitochondria 20 GS
Chloroplasts 20 GS
Cytoskeleton 15 GS
Extracellular Matrix 15 GS
Cell Junctions 20 GS
Cell Walls 15 GS

In your post tell us why you purchased each organelle you did. How do you think they will help you evolve into a multicellular organism? What kind of multicellular organism do you think this will help you evolve into? Keep in mind the organelles you already have (you are a bacterial cell, remember, though primitive). Would eukaryotic organelles be better for helping you evolve into a multicellular organism? Maybe you just want upgraded bacterial organelles and structures. If you don’t spend all your money tell us why.

2. Crossing-over 
Sexual reproduction involves crossing-over to mix up genes. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? In the discussion this week explain one pro and one con to crossing-over. Overall, what is your opinion of crossing-over? Can evolution occur without it?

3. Non-Mendelian Inheritance 
Some traits are inherited in a Mendelian fashion, others are not. Let’s explore non-Mendelian inheritance a little more. In the discussion this week research a trait that is inherited in a non-Mendelian fashion. Discuss the trait and the inheritance pattern.

4. Retrovirus Prompt
I have a great fascination with viruses. The destructive power of something so small, and our inability to conquer some of them, is very frustrating. They have DNA/RNA, just like us, and we have a good idea of how that DNA/RNA works, yet there are many missing pieces to the puzzle to eradicate some of them. One of the scariest types of viruses, in my opinion, is the retrovirus. HIV is an example of a retrovirus, where the virus is spread by RNA and then reverse transcribed into DNA that will be inserted into our own DNA! These viruses are very tough to conquer, but also have a brilliant means of easy replication for their own survival. Think about our own survival once infected with a retrovirus and how our infection affects the retrovirus's survival. Address one of the following prompts in the discussion this week:
  • Research a retrovirus and discuss methods to try to cure it or create a vaccine for it. 
  • Research a retrovirus and discuss how the retrovirus benefits from being inserted in another organism’s DNA.
5. Macroevolution
Massive events can contribute to speciation, but so can minor ones. In the discussion this week we are going to explore some of those massive events that have occurred through history causing evolution and speciation. For your post this week please describe how continental drift, mass extinctions, or adaptive radiations contribute to speciation and provide an example of how your event leads to speciation. This example can be a real one or an idea you made up. Please cite sources when needed!

6. Evolution of Physical Features
Evolution led to the development of every feature you have. Think about a feature that you think might have an interesting developmental evolution, such as the evolution of hands or eyes or cat claws, research it, and post a paragraph about what you have learned about the evolution of that feature with a link to your sources. You must discuss evolution of the feature, not just interesting facts about it.

7. Biodiversity 
Human impacts on the environment can be obvious and have an immediate effect, like oil spills. They can also be less obvious due to the time it takes for the negative consequences to become apparent, like pollution and climate change. Research a threat to biodiversity caused by humans. Discuss the threat and suggest ways we could stop it.