Inclusive Teaching and Campus Leadership Seen as Keys to Improving Biology Undergraduate Education

The wild marama bean (Tylosema esculentum), a legume that could serve as a sustainable crop in subsistence regions, is collected for a research collaboration between undergraduates at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Namibia. Dr. Percy Chimwamurombe of the University of Namibia is on the far right. [Courtesy Christopher A. Cullis]

Professor Christopher A. Cullis, a veteran of Case Western Reserve University's biology department, engages his undergraduate students in developing DNA markers for the wild marama bean, an under-utilized or "lost" crop of Africa. Rich in protein, oil, and starch, the marama bean is a tuber-producing perennial legume that could serve as a sustainable crop in subsistence regions. Cullis obtains plants from collaborators at the University of Namibia. His students are then prompted to extract DNA from the plants, characterize the leaf material, make phenotypic measurements, complete genetic sequencing, and finally, contribute data to a developing molecular map of the marama bean.

"The curriculum effectively teaches undergraduates to interpret data, rather than just looking for the `correct' answer," said Cullis. The course also engages students in helping with an important social issue: how to feed hungry people. Many under-utilized crops could be sequenced and domesticated if other teachers worked together on similar real-world or "authentic" undergraduate research projects, Cullis noted.

Biology faculty members like Cullis are "far and away the most likely to involve undergraduates in their research," said Lorelle L. Espinosa, a senior analyst with Abt Associates who spoke at a recent conference on improving biology undergraduate education. This is good news, she said, because "student-centered teaching" practices, including undergraduate research experiences and team-based projects, clearly help to keep undergraduate students more academically engaged. More academically engaged students may be more likely to complete a science–related degree, speakers said at the 28-30 August Vision & Change event, co-hosted by AAAS and spearheaded by the National Science Foundation.

In the classroom, however, faculty in biology and all other science-related fields must do more to see their students through to graduation. A survey of roughly 23,000 full-time undergraduate teaching faculty at four-year colleges and universities revealed that faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields leverage inclusive teaching methods less frequently than their non-STEM counterparts, said Espinosa, citing research by Sylvia Hurtado and colleagues with the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Community workers collect the wild marama bean for research. [Courtesy Christopher A. Cullis]

Only about one-third of aspiring biomedical science students complete a bachelor's degree in the field within six years, Espinosa reported. Students — particularly high-achievers — tend to fare better on campuses where faculty have incorporated student-centered teaching practices, said Kevin Eagan, HERI's assistant director for research. Faculty may be reluctant to reconfigure courses if campus leaders do not seem to value innovative teaching, he said. Others assume that student-centered teaching will not work for introductory courses, although research has debunked this myth.

Improving U.S. biology undergraduate education will be essential to reduce "leakage" in the STEM pipeline, others noted. From a pool of more than 4 million ninth-graders ninth-graders in 2001, only 166,530 had earned STEM degrees by 2011, said Muquarrab Qureshi. "That translates into significant gaps for the U.S. Department of Agriculture," said Qureshi, assistant director of the Institute of Youth, Family, and Community, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). "We will have about 54,000 jobs to fill but only 29,000 students who would be able to fill those jobs" between 2010 and 2015.

Continuing national prosperity also will require a more uniformly well-educated population, said Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University. Currently, more than 80 percent of the most affluent Americans attain a college degree by age 26, compared with only about 8 percent of those in the bottom quartile of U.S. wealth distribution, Becker said. "It has been reported that in a decade our nation will need approximately 60 percent of young adults to be college-educated in order for this country to remain competitive with the rest of the world, and that as much as 85 percent of the new jobs in my metro region will require a bachelor's degree or greater," he added. "Right now, only about 30 percent of all Americans have attained a bachelor's degree or greater."

Positive changes are possible. At Georgia State, which has one of the largest populations of low-income students in the nation, Becker reported that 53 percent of all students now complete a degree within six years, up from about 32 percent in 2003. Moreover, disparities in degree-attainment rates across racial, ethnic, and economic lines have been eliminated. Beginning with a focused, externally reviewed strategic plan, the school collected data, conducted experiments, and scaled up the most effective efforts. For example, peer tutors were deployed to help at-risk students in "high DFW" courses — those in which more than a third of students received a D or an F, or withdrew. Georgia State also expanded freshman learning communities, developed financial interventions, and implemented a centralized, data-driven academic advisement system.

Mark Becker [colelladigital.com]

Successful reform efforts require leadership support, and they should address all aspects of the learning environment — from the curriculum and teaching, to how classrooms are configured, said James Collins, who is the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University: "You can't fix one point on the continuum and expect the continuum to change." If department chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents are not on board, however, Becker said that change can begin when small groups of faculty complete pilot projects: "Find the change leaders. Do the demonstrations. The carping, complaining, and questioning will subside once the data and results speak for themselves."

The Vision & Change conference drew 350 attendees from 178 colleges and universities, said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. The event was co-hosted by the NSF, NIFA, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which also support a national network of change-focused fellows. Carol Brewer, professor emerita of biology, University of Montana, and AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science, co-chaired the Vision & Change advisory board.