iThink Biology: A living, breathing textbook that is free for all

Sravanti Uppaluri talks to Nandita Jayaraj about iThink Biology, an online textbook created by the Biology faculty at Azim Premji University that invites undergraduate students to see biology in a way they never have before.

I Think Biology Cover image

Antara Das recollects getting her first taste of molecular biology through the seminal textbook Molecular Biology of the Gene by Nobel laureate James D Watson. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

It was a big book and I just could not grasp it during my BSc… it felt very dense,” she recalled.

It was only during her Master’s that the book actually started making sense to her. Equipped with the right resources at the right time, Antara recognised that molecular biology was her true calling. In retrospect, she discerns what turned her off the first time: “[Text]books are pitched at a level where they may not be accessible to everyone,” she said.

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Sravanti Uppaluri (third from left), with her colleagues (from left) Shweta Ramdas, Beena DB and Antara Das | Background art: Aranya Broome

For the founding team of biology teachers at Azim Premji University, where Antara now works, one of the highest priorities was to develop resources that would introduce their subject to undergraduate students in the best possible way.

They wanted to develop resources that were grounded in the Indian context, catered to a diverse group of students and were reflective of the dynamic nature of science. Resources that wouldn’t drown students in the depths of scientific concepts like perhaps Watson’s textbooks once did to Antara, but allow them to appreciate the biology around them and explore its intersections with society.

The biologists’ years-long pursuit of a textbook that reflected these values resulted in the creation of a brand new one.

iThink Biology was released in November 2021 and six months on, several plans are underfoot to take this free and online resource to undergraduate classrooms across the country.

Sravanti Uppaluri, a developmental biologist and one of the creators of the book, is both excited and nervous about using iThink Biology in her Discover Biology classroom in the coming academic year.

The textbook is India-centric, unlike most western textbooks we refer to… We really wanted it to be something that our diverse student body could see themselves in,” said Sravanti.

All the content in the e‑book has been organised into four disarmingly relatable themes: Land and waterscapes’, Human health’, Food and agriculture’, and Interactions between organisms’. This feels odd, maybe even incomplete, to anyone who has had a more conventional science education. After all, most traditional biology textbooks comprise more prosaic and compartmentalised chapter names like Evolution’, Cells’, Metabolism’, Genetics’, Ecology’, and so on.

All textbooks – whether it’s for the undergraduate level or for fifth grade – are rooted in research,” reminds Sravanti. But over time, some concepts got set in stone and give the impression that this will never change. We wanted our textbook to show students that this body of knowledge is a living, breathing thing that can continuously change.”

Indeed, things work differently in the world of iThink Biology. Sravanti illustrates this with a chapter on Malaria’, which is placed under the theme Human Health’.

It may not seem immediately obvious why malaria deserves such a prominent place in an introductory text for undergraduate students of Biology. Was it because of malaria’s high prevalence in India (where it kills 20,000 people every year)?

Partly, but more compelling for the creators of iThink Biology was the plethora of learning opportunities that the topic of malaria brought with it.

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The header image for the chapter on Malaria in the iThink Biology e‑textbook | Art: Aranya Broome

We wanted students to learn how to read and interpret complicated texts, so we told them the history of malaria — how Ronald Ross discovered transmission of malaria, incidentally when he was in India,” said Sravanti.

This section includes carefully curated historical visuals such as actual notes by Ross and the microscope he used for this research. Readers are then offered exercises to test how well they comprehended this story. For example, they are asked What was the main hypothesis that Ross was trying to test in his work in India?’

Once readers have understood how malaria is transmitted, they are now nudged to think about how the disease is diagnosed. For Sravanti and team, this was the perfect chance to delve into the world of microscopes, which are the primary tools used to detect malaria. There are sections that depict the parts of a microscope, how it works, and how it can be used to diagnose diseases like malaria. Linked to this is also a primer on length scales in biology for students who may be so inclined.

The saga of malaria isn’t over yet. Post diagnosis, the question of how the disease can be cured comes up, and this is where the fascinating story of the Chinese scientist Tu Youyou is woven in.

She discovered the life-saving drug artemisinin by linking traditional medicine with contemporary scientific tools,” says Sravanti. This was a particularly rich section of the chapter, as it included many different sides to her scientific journey — for example, Tu Youyou being a woman scientist, working during the Vietnam War, looking at traditional medical texts, etc.

This fit in very neatly with another goal of the iThink Biology creators: We wanted to show how different disciplines come into play in biology. We cannot understand several aspects of biology without knowing the history and socioeconomic aspects,” says Sravanti.

The malaria narrative flows into contemporary dilemmas in public health, i.e., antibiotic resistance, and this is used to introduce readers to the idea of evolution. Further, students are exposed to epidemiological data in an attempt to build quantitative skills.

In this way, Sravanti explained that a chapter was more than just an account of a biological concept. First, we picked the capacity we wanted to build, then designed the content and the narrative.”

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Sravanti Uppaluri, Biology Faculty, Azim Premji University

This capacity-building approach is crucial, in Sravanti’s opinion, for the University’s Biology programme to reflect the diversity of motives that their students come with.

Some students finish our programme and say this is great, but I don’t want to study biology anymore’ and that’s fine,” she says. Our goal is not to tie people down to biology. Even if you are going to do an MBA, join an NGO, study physics, we want the programme to still offer you something that could be useful.”

That something, according to Sravanti, includes the capacities. The five capacities (Scientific Tools, Bridging Science Society and the Environment, Scientific Process, Reading and Interpreting, and Quantitative Skills) played a huge role in the design of the book – right from the layout to the navigation of the website.”

While the folly of over-relying on textbooks is only too well known among science educators in the country, it doesn’t mean that the answer is to completely shun textbooks. Leaving science education to the teacher doesn’t make sense for most classrooms in India which suffer from very high student-teacher ratios.

Even in places like Azim Premji University, where the ratios are relatively low and the focus on pedagogy is strong, Sravanti points out that it’s only for a few hours every week that students are actually in the controlled environment of the classroom.

While the internet is a source of a wealth of information about any topic, she believes that it is unfair and inaccurate to assume that all students had the wherewithal to filter out the bad from the good. That’s why you need a centralised set of resources,” she insists.

Designing a textbook for biology comes with an extra layer of complications. Shweta Ramdas, who also teaches at the University and specialises in Genomics, sums up: I have not used textbooks to teach, because genetics and genomics change so rapidly that there is no book that is up to date with everything I teach. Every two years a book becomes 10 – 20% out of date.”

Similarly, Beena DB too has struggled to find a textbook that can adequately supplement her practical plant biotechnology classes. The internet doesn’t always cut it. Students are grappling to find some kind of common thread, some kind of a footing in the subject. If they miss a structure or a foundation, a textbook can really help bring this,” said Shweta, adding the more I teach without a textbook, the more I realise how valuable it is.”

One of the reasons iThink Biology is designed as an online resource is to enable it to keep up with the dynamic nature of biology. There’s so much scope to try out more things,” emphasises Sravanti. We can add more chapters, make corrections, try different assessment strategies, start web communities for discussions.… the ideas are endless!”

The iThink Biology team is particularly excited about soliciting new chapters from the outside world. It doesn’t have to be a closed system. It has the potential to be a country-wide effort,” says Sravanti.

Is iThink Biology ahead of its time? Maybe, but not much. Sravanti is optimistic that with the National Education Policy 2020 in place, schools and universities will soon be shifting their emphasis from content to competency. And when they do, their textbook will make that transformation just a little bit smoother.

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Know more about BSc in Biology at Azim Premji University here.

Know more about Biology Faculty, Azim Premji University: Sravanti Uppaluri, Antara Das, Beena DB, Shweta Ramdas, Divya Uma, Jayanti Mukherjee, Kaustubh Rau, Sriram.

About the Author

Nandita Jayaraj is a Science writer and Communications Consultant at Azim Premji University.