An Interview with the Authors of General Biology

Classical Academic Press interviewed authors Dr. Heather Ayala and Katie Rogstad in view of the publication of the new textbook General Biology.


You both undertook this endeavor because you felt there was a need in homeschooling for a well-written biology text. What features does this text have that meet those needs?

HA: Two things come to mind! The first is that there’s some rigor to this text. It's not watered down! It's not written below grade-level. We want to challenge students to rise to the occasion as readers and learners, because we want them to grow in their understanding!  Another thing that sets this book apart relates to the Novare principle of “Kingdom Perspective.” We give God’s glory it’s due throughout the text; we make reference to the amazing creation of the world and how awesome it is that we have these systems created in the way that we do. This focus on the kingdom is done in a more balanced way, too, because it's not heavy-handed. It comes through in a natural way.

KR: I totally agree with that! I would add that our text is very well interconnected, which points back to the Novare principle of integration. Whenever we introduce a key concept, it will keep showing up in later chapters. We keep cycling back to particular concepts to show that the entire subject of biology is interconnected. Everything builds upon itself! We try to make God’s glory paramount throughout the text, and it shows itself kind of naturally because, you know, He created all this! We're just kind of shining the spotlight on what God already did.

I also think this book stands out because we're not trying to push an agenda. Where there’s controversy (and this book addresses a few), we don't always take a position. Instead, we gather and present the information! We want students to think and to look at the data and really dive into what John Mays calls “the cycle of scientific enterprise.” This is how science works; this is what series are; this is how we gather data to engage theories. So we present the current mainstream view, but we're not going to take one position emphatically say “this is exactly how it is.” You need to learn how to think for yourself, and we want to give you the information to accomplish that task.

The images and the illustrations in this book are over-the-top amazing! Credit for that goes to John. I would sketch something on a sticky note and send him a picture, and he would turn it into this gorgeous illustration. I think that, especially compared to other homeschool books on the market, really makes this book stand out.

Another thing is our historical sequences! I’m sure we’ll talk about that more later. There are a number of histories of various theories that we go into detail on. We really want students to have a grasp on the history of a theory, not just the theory itself.

How did your partnership as authors fall into place, and what makes it unique?

KR: It was a really rough first year for me working on this project, so I basically told John [Mays] I can't do this on my own! I told him I was open to writing with another author, and he immediately said “Well, I've been talking to this lady named Heather, maybe you'd like to have her join forces with you?” My response was "Yes, please!"

HA: The opportunity to write with Katie just really fell in my lap! She had already been working on the project by the time John brought me onboard. It's been great working together because our backgrounds are so different, even though they're both biology. The angles that we've come at it with are very different, and that's been a good thing.

KR: I agree! It’s been a great partnership for many reasons, but mostly because, like Heather said, our areas of expertise are different. I come at it more from the chemistry angle while Heather has all this great experience with organismal biology and ecology. Those are things that I'm not as strong on! So the division of labor really worked out in a way that we could basically divide the book in half, but we also had this process of sending each other chapters. We’d review them together and have discussions before sending it to John.

What approach did you take with the theory of evolution? Is there a particular reason it is discussed at the end of the book?

KR: We ended up putting it at the end for a number of reasons. One is so that the students have all the tools in their toolbox before we broach the subject. Because evolution really touches on every other aspect of biology; all of it is necessary to fully understand how evolution works. Another reason is just to give instructors a choice, so that if they don't feel comfortable broaching that subject, they don’t have to include that material.

I hope that this book will kind of give everybody a chance to just look at evolution, a topic that's been difficult, with fresh eyes. For me, when it comes to evolution, it's been a very personal journey. When I started this, I didn't really know what I personally thought or what my opinion was on the controversial stuff. I wanted to come at it with an open lens, really looking at all the points of view. I wanted to dig deep in as wide an array of literature as I possibly could and try to figure out why people get upset about this topic. I tried to be very careful with my terms and define everything very carefully because sometimes, when people talk about evolution, the word itself can lead to a visceral reaction. I wanted to get away from that! We decided to term it evolutionary theory, and it’s important to recognize that a theory is not the same as the truth. A theory is the best explanation that we have for a set of facts. But a theory will change in the future because we're still learning and we're still growing in our understanding.

HA: It was, of course, a very interesting chapter to process and approach. We both felt a lot of investment in this topic because we’ve encountered it in our time as teachers. We understood that there's a spectrum. There's the young-earth creationist end of the spectrum, where you have the literal 24-hour day idea of creation. The other end of the spectrum is full blown into unguided evolution with no God. Then there's so many places in between!

So Katie and I are both somewhere in the middle, but we're not in the same spot in the middle. That actually really helped because we were able to have discussions and conversations and work through some of these ideas. Katie articulated that our purpose was to lay out the facts that we do know and the data that we do know. This will allow students and instructors to come to their own conclusions as they walk this line of the theory of evolution, which is not an easy line to walk.

This whole process came with a very rewarding moment! One of our reviewers said that we were able to have this balanced approach to this idea of evolution, one that he hadn't seen anywhere else before. We weren't trying to be polarizing; we were really trying to present a faithful treatment of it, and I think we succeeded in that effort.

What’s the core tenant or central theme of this text?

KR: That’s a tough question! At the end of the day, I think it comes down to purpose. In this book, we see God's purpose. Even when it comes to things that are evolving and changing over time, like DNA and genes that are changing and adapting to an environment. We see God's purpose in that.

What are some challenges that students face when studying biology versus other sciences or other subjects? How does this book help prepare and get students past those challenges?

KR: I remember my experience with biology vividly. I took biology as a freshman in high school, and the first day I just cried! I went home and melted down because I was reading this textbook that was full of unfamiliar vocabulary. I was used to being a good student and having everything come really easily to me, and suddenly I’m reading this book that’s throwing names of enzymes at me. I felt overwhelmed with the task of learning that huge body of material all at once, and I think that’s a major challenge for most biology students. I realized I needed patterns in order to understand it, and ways to connect those patterns together. This book does a really good job of that, connecting those dots and building up from the first principles, so to speak, in a very logical and orderly way. This starts with the chemistry side of things, all the way down to atoms, and then builds to bigger and bigger pieces in an orderly way.

HA: When I lecture and teach biology material that students understand, they don't have a lot of questions about it, because it makes sense. They've encountered it before. The struggle with biology comes when they understand a concept, but then they get to the exam and they completely bomb the exam. Because they haven't practiced; they haven't taken the time to internalize the information; they thought they understood it. They haven't actually internalized it and really owned it. One of the things that this text does is bring about that mastery through the way questions are designed. Students must answer questions in complete sentences, which will help them to begin to master and verbalize that information, which is ultimately the goal. Questions will also go back to previous chapters to review a prior concept and link it to a current concept.

KR: Those review questions that Heather mentioned are important! They’re not just a straight review; they ask students to review a concept in light of what they learned in the most recent chapter. It’s all about weaving content together and connecting the dots in new ways, ultimately reinforcing what was learned previously!

What about this text will resonate with educators?

KR: It goes back to John's philosophy of teaching for mastery. Prior to learning from John how to incorporate mastery, I taught in a more traditional way. Essentially, here's some multiple choice questions, and then we're going to do all your vocabulary by matching and maybe you're going to have one essay question on a test. With Novare’s books, students have to integrate the material for themselves and show that they understand it on a higher level, not just by choosing A, B, C, or D. They have a certain probability of getting the right answer just by choosing A, B, C, or D; it doesn't show students have really assimilated the content. Educators are challenged to teach in a way that integrates that mastery concept with their students, helping them to understand at a higher level.

HA: The book offers concepts that are clearly explained and articulated, in a way that allows educators to come alongside their students and help them learn material. There were numerous times John would sit down with each of us say, "Okay, help me understand this better," or, "How can I create this image to better demonstrate what we're explaining in the text?" That process helped make this a really great text. We were working to sharpen and clarify concepts to make them as clear as possible for educators to explain to students.

What did you enjoy most about writing this text?

HA: I would say integrating the historical aspects! I found myself researching a lot about the history of things and how these ideas came about in biology. A lot of times, I didn't know anything about a person or event. I had to go learn about it and that was really fun for me. It became this idea of storytelling, in a sense. We're telling stories as we're talking about the science, and that story-telling nature of science, that historical aspect, also appeals to those who are the non-scientists types.

KR: I have to agree with Heather, I loved writing those historical sequences, and I learned so much while doing it. Sometimes, when we're learning science just by rote facts, we stop and go, "Well, how do they know that?" "Where did they get that idea?" When you learn the history behind it, then you kind of connect those dots and see that people didn’t always think the way they do now. It’s fascinating to learn how people used to think, and how that thinking has changed over the course of history. 

What is biology’s role in embodying the “truth, goodness, and beauty” of a classical education?

HA: If you expose your students to music and art, good literature, whatever it is, and they have a taste for it, then they can better appreciate and understand the artist. So, if we're studying the natural world learning about this creation, it tells us something about the Creator. Through biology we learn that there's order in the created world, and that we are made by a God of order. That's what he desires, his order. We come to understand that the creation account is about him putting order in chaos.

Why is it important to include biology in a high school science education alongside other subjects like physics and chemistry?

KR: Well Heather mentioned art in the last question, so I’m going to build on of her art example! When we study art, we start out with the elements of art. You have shape, and line, and color, and value, and all these things. Those are the building blocks, and then they get put together into this amazing, beautiful masterpiece. That’s how I see the relationship between biology and chemistry and physics. Physics and chemistry give you those building blocks—those elements of art. All those elements are put together in biology to explain God's crowning achievement, which is human beings! And I think it's natural for students to wonder: "What am I made out of?" "How does my body work?" "Am I made out of atoms?" "How are they put together?" In biology, they get to answer those questions, which results in a sense of wonder. Because we're not just this mechanistic thing. We have the ability to have a relationship with God and other human beings. There are still so many wondrous mysteries that are still yet to be solved, yet studying what we do know points to the artist himself.

If I were to stumble upon you reading General Biology, what specific page or chapter would I find you on?

HA: Honestly, I think to some extent, it would depend on what I was in the mood for! Right now, going back to the historical element, I would say this part I got to write on viruses and their history. There’s a sequence there on smallpox and how the smallpox vaccine was created by Edward Jenner. That sequence is in Chapter 7; it’s a fun one that I really enjoy looking back on.

KR: The first thing that came to my mind was this picture; it's the opener for Chapter 12, which is our chapter on the theory of evolution. Since writing this book, I've just kind of had this habit.  I bought a fancy camera, and, whenever we go out camping, I just take a million pictures because, well, I might be able to use one of them. Well, this is one of them that I was able to use! This picture is called “Can you spot the moth?” My family was taking a camping trip up near Mammoth in California, and I spotted this moth. The moment ended up being the intersection of my family enjoying God's creation, and me just looking around saying, "What can I capture with my camera?" and then finding an organism adapting to its environment so that it can avoid predators. Looking back at that picture and that moment is fun for me.

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