Can a New Vision Bring New Life to Biology Class?

As the fall semester begins at U.S. high schools and universities, the rites of introductory biology begin anew: Tens of thousands of students are listening to lectures on photosynthesis, memorizing parts of the cell, and learning the terms of taxonomy. The lessons would be familiar to their parents, in some cases even to their grandparents.

And that, experts say, is the problem. While biological research is advancing at warp speed, amassing new insights and new data as the lines separating biology, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering dissolve and the fields converge, biology education has seemed stuck in the 20th century. Now, urged on by science and education leaders—and many teachers—a growing number of schools are taking a new approach.

In the place of courses based solely on lectures and memorization, they are incorporating the latest practices of biological research, engaging students with the opportunity to think and work like scientists on issues with real-world relevance.

“We need education that will excite and inspire young people who will go on to become scientists and workers in biology-related fields,” said Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS. “At the same time, we need to give all students a coherent view of the processes of life so that they’ll understand issues in their own lives and communities—issues like health, environmental protection, and biosecurity.”

Leshner and others say that a transformation in biology education, from elementary school through graduate school, will be essential to support biotechnology, biomedicine, and other sectors that will be centers of 21st-century innovation and economic growth. Without that, the risk is that U.S. leadership in these fields will diminish, at great economic cost.

In the past 25 years, some two dozen major reports have focused in part or in full on improving biology and related science education. But in recent years, the idea has moved closer to critical mass.

Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp of MIT co-chaired the National Research Council committee that produced A New Biology for the 21st Century, published in 2009. Now the president-elect of AAAS, Sharp predicts that biology will be crucial in addressing global challenges in climate change, food security, energy, and health.

In an interview, Sharp said that to build new understanding of tumors or ecosystems, scientists must be able to analyze oceans of new data generated by genomic sequencing, imaging, and other advanced technology. Upper-level science and pre-med students will need skills in writing computer programs, working with databases, and analyzing statistics.

Even in Biology 101, “you have to introduce material that illustrates the importance of this emerging power in biological science,” Sharp said. “Ideally, with the right support system or online system ... you can get students to do simple computational problems.”

A broad effort under way since 2006 embraces the idea that undergrad students should be exposed to the real practice of science. The project, overseen by Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), brought hundreds of educators, students, policy-makers, scientists, and others together for a series of regional and national meetings on transforming biology education.

The resulting 2011 report—Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action—offers a detailed, evidence-based agenda for transforming the curriculum and the culture. Among the key recommendations: Guide students to understanding of core concepts in courses that “are active ... inquiry-driven, and relevant,” featuring research experience as “an integral component.”

Too often, faculty use teaching methods that do not match the cutting-edge character of their biological research, said Terry Woodin, a program director in NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education. In the Vision and Change meetings, she said, the message from students was clear: If you want to inform and inspire, lectures and memorization alone can be counterproductive.

“Most students are savvy users of the Web, so there’s not so much need anymore to memorize everything,” Woodin explained. “They want to feel that they’re part of the science community, and that they’re learning things that can be related to the real world. They want to be challenged to think.”

Instructors, obviously, are crucial to the transformation of biology education. Through the BEN Scholars (BEN is short for BiosciEdNet), AAAS and its partners in the program are training select faculty members in the use of resources from the BEN Portal digital library; they bring their new insight not only to students but also to other faculty at their institutions. The Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education—PULSE—is a new effort by NSF, NIH, and HHMI that plans to enlist 40 Vision and Change Leadership Fellows to implement findings from the 2011 report.

And Project 2061, the AAAS science literacy initiative, is working with teachers in Colorado, Maryland, Boston, and Washington, D.C., on a module that prepares middle-school students for high school biology—by teaching them chemistry.

Director Jo Ellen Roseman said the lessons focus on polymer formation, a central process in sustaining life. Students use time-lapse photos to explore growth in animals. They see how mixing two colorless chemical solutions can yield nylon fibers; then they use Lego blocks and other models to visualize biological growth at the molecular level.

“My mission was to see if we could get kids understanding that biology is chemistry,” Roseman explained. Among a small group of teachers involved in the project last spring, “all got significant learning gains,” she added. “It’s very exciting.”

Of course, there will be obstacles to the transformation of biology education. Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, says many of them are cultural—old habits die hard. But as more educators embrace the new ideas, she says, the Vision and Change project is entering a new phase: It will assess how the report’s recommendations are being adopted and which of them are proving effective.

“Change is hard and transformations don’t happen overnight,” Malcom said. “It’s a process—we need to try new things, refine them, and keep working at them. The hope is that all of these efforts will help people to see the great potential of these new ideas.”