Before I started posting about what I do each week in Writing in Biology, I should probably have drafted a post about establishing a "theme" for each semester. The theme ends up affecting many of the exercises I have students do and some of the scheduling of events.
By "theme", I mean a topic or subject area that the course is going to focus on for the semester. This often will affect what organism/object I choose for the first "writing from experience" exercise, what papers I choose for students to look at in week 2, and will limit the scope of what kinds of research proposals and projects we'll work on.
I've tried teaching the class both with and without an organizing theme. My sense has been that it works better to have a theme. A theme usually gives students ideas about the kinds of things they might do. Having no theme leaves students adrift trying to come up with ideas. Students also frequently want to choose inappropriate topics for research (human subjects or vertebrate research that would require complex paperwork to conduct) and choosing a broad theme that excludes those topics, takes them right off the table.
I usually try to pick something that I don't know much about. I do this, in part, because it's an opportunity for me to learn stuff. But also because I'm much less likely to become overly directive if I don't know too much about it. When I've picked a topic I already know pretty well, I find that my opinions end up guiding students too much: they're better off to go into the subject themselves.
Some of the themes worked pretty well. I was particularly pleased with the outcomes of studying vernal pools, tardigrades, garlic mustard, and planarians. Successful themes seem to incorporate a mix of student wonder and importance.
Less successful themes were not disastrous, but didn't pique students' interests for whatever reason. I'm reminded of the semester we studied cockroaches. I picked the theme because I was aware students generally prefer to study animals to plants, but finding an animal to study in November/December is challenging. I thought that we could catch cockroaches in the building and look at demographics/diversity of the populations. But students seemed to regard cockroaches not as "animals" but as mere "vermin" unworthy of study.
One challenge with teaching for participation is that each group of students is different. And even just one or two enthusiastic -- or recalcitrant -- individuals can make a huge difference in the atmosphere of the class. In one semester, I coordinated with the Amherst Tree Warden with the goal of having the data we collected be also a community service learning project with the Town. But I had a student who was seemingly a devotee of Ayn Rand and complained bitterly for weeks about being "forced" to do "free work" for the Town.
In point of fact, when it comes to writing a proposal or project, I don't let the theme interfere with a student, or group, that wants to write about something else. It is always my goal that students who really want to write about any particular thing should be supported in their aspirations. The whole point of my teaching is to liberate students to use the class to pursue their own interests, after all.