Traditional biology has experienced a renaissance in recent years, widening its reach to include newly pioneered disciplines such as genomics, proteomics, synthetic biology and systems biology. Yet, over the years, the fine art of undergraduate biology education has remained largely unchanged.
Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action
Now, after years of collaboration among biology students, professors, and researchers, the National Science Foundation (NSF), AAAS, and their partners have released Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action to chart a course for bringing more contemporary, multi-disciplinary instruction into undergraduate biology classrooms. For those concerned about—or directly involved with—the current state of biology education, this new report represents a significant step toward modernizing the ways that biological sciences are taught in universities across the United States.
“The publication of Visions and Change is a start,” said Bruce Alberts, the editor-in-chief of the journal Science. “It's now time for action.”
“This report presents a blueprint for change,” added Judith Verbeke, acting director of the Division of Biological Infrastructure at NSF. “We now need to work together to translate this vision into the changes necessary to effect a true transformation of undergraduate biology education.”
The report, a comprehensive call to action, was released to the public on Saturday 19 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, organized the event and Alberts, a longtime advocate of science education, was there to discuss the report with faculty, reporters and policy-makers.
With funding from the NSF and support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, AAAS led the effort to consult with top education experts, faculty members and students to develop the report. Across the board, there were serious concerns that biology education has become disconnected from the science as it's being practiced in the 21st century.
Undergraduate biology students have made it clear in focus groups that they are looking for relevance in their classrooms and labs. They want to be challenged, and they want to participate in real-world research that combines various disciplines.
With that in mind, the architects of Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education set out to plot a strategy that would transform undergraduate biology education in America into a system that integrates the scientific process into all courses and provides student majors and non-majors with authentic research experiences and faculty members with a community of scholars to network with.
“Perhaps one of the most telling reflections of this report is the identity of science education as an active and growing discipline in its own right,” said Cynthia Bauerle, senior program officer in Precollege and Undergraduate Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The infusion of science and technology into peoples' everyday lives, along with the emergence of novel interdisciplinary fields, has changed the way we view the world and made it clear that a transformation in biology education is necessary. Scientific leaps and bounds promise to open up a new world of opportunities and practical applications, including medical advances, alternative energy sources and fresh understandings of the behavioral and social sciences—in some cases, the moral and social tensions related to such advances as well. But to be ready for this changing landscape, undergraduate students need to be prepared to understand them and engage with them, even those who do not plan to become scientists.
The seeds of the Vision and Change report were sown in 2006, when the NSF education and biology directorates recognized the need within the biology community to discuss a shared vision for undergraduate biology education and the changes needed to achieve that vision. In 2007, AAAS coordinated a series of seven conversations across the country with prominent biology educators, administrators and stakeholders to seek direction on how to improve undergraduate biology instruction.
In 2009, a follow-up Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education Conference  in Washington, D.C., attracted more than 500 faculty, administrators, and students who continued that dialogue from the conversations and honed in on specific action items and practices that could make laboratory and classroom instruction more engaging. That same year, a group of 231 undergraduate students participated in focus groups that revealed their needs for biology education in the 21st Century.
According to Carol Brewer, former associate dean and emeritus professor of biology at the University of Montana and co-chair of the Vision and Change Advisory Board, the main goal of the convention was to be sure “that the science we are teaching is the same science we are doing.”
The fruits of their labor are now available in the Vision and Change report—although publication of this report only represents the second-to-last step on the road to a modernized biology education in America. Implementing Vision and Change in educational practice and programs still remains a challenging task on the horizon.
To start, the report will be distributed to all who participated in the 2007 conversations or the 2009 conference, as well as to a host of grantees, provosts, deans, and biology department chairs across the country. Planning for a 2012 Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education Conference is also already underway, focused on bringing the report into classrooms and labs across the nation.