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BEN Scholars: Building Digital Resources to Power 21st Century Biology Education

Call it a paradox of time.

Technology is producing amazing digital teaching resources that can enhance student learning and save time for always-busy teaching faculty at U.S. colleges and universities, but often the instructors don’t have time to find the resources, learn the technologies, and put them to use.

To help untangle the paradox, an innovative professional development program is building grassroots networks to connect faculty and digital resources, with a premium on quality and efficiency. The BEN Scholars Program is providing training and support for select faculty members to build digital expertise, and the scholars then take their expertise and their new tools back to colleagues at school and through scholarly publications.

The scholars program and the rich BEN Portal of digital biology education resources are changing classrooms in fundamental ways.

Juville Dario-Becker

“I scout through the BEN Portal resources, and I send the links to my students,” said Juville Dario-Becker, professor of biology at Central Virginia Community College. “I tell them, ‘Hey, you had that idea last time we talked, maybe you want to take a look at this.’ It could be short video clip, it could be a paper published, or some teaching tips, whatever. It helps them to find out that I’m not the only one they can run to for help. There are a lot of resources out there—they just have to know where to go.”

The Scholars Program is administered jointly by AAAS, the American Physiological Society, and the American Society for Microbiology.

The third class of BEN Scholars and the growth of the BEN Portal resources reflect an evolution away from blackboards and even from textbooks. Taking their place are new, more engaging education resources: from Wikipedia and YouTube to the sort of open-source online courses offered by MIT and Stanford, and the vast National Science Digital Library.

The resources are valuable not just for teaching science and other subjects, but in supporting education for students who speak English as a second language, and even aiding instructors’ professional development. And BEN Scholars report that the program is helping to foster innovative partnerships between instructors, librarians, and technology staff at their colleges and universities.

The BEN portal—BEN is short for BiosciEdNet—is NSDL’s pathway for biological sciences education. Managed by AAAS, it provides access to over 18,000 reviewed resources covering 77 topics, with the materials contributed by a collaborative of 25 professional societies or organizations. BEN Scholars receive face-to-face and online professional development in the use of digital libraries, student-centered learning and assessment, and faculty outreach. They become part of an emerging community of leaders in biology education.

“The Scholars Program is valuable because it connects faculty to the digital resources and programs of the members of the BEN Collaborative and provides a peer-support community for faculty leaders who have a passion for improving undergraduate biology teaching and learning,” said Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.

Alan J. Wolf
Flora P. McMartin

For the past decade, education technology experts Flora P. McMartin and Alan J. Wolf have been working with colleagues to understand how college-level faculty use digital resources in the classroom. Wolf, a biologist and learning technologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Media Center, recalls early efforts to educate colleagues about digital tools and their application.

“I would tell them about these great resources,” he said, “and I couldn’t figure out why people weren’t just sucking them up and using them.”

To explore that question, he began working with McMartin in 2004, when she was director of membership and evaluation at MERLOT, a free digital library designed for higher education faculty, staff, and students. (Today, McMartin leads Broad-based Knowledge, a consulting firm that that helps educators evaluate their use of learning technology.) In surveys conducted since 2006, they have found that biology and other science instructors place a great deal of value placed in digital media, especially multi-media.

But the instructors usually don’t develop their own materials. That’s where the time paradox exerts its influence: Many faculty members go online and find digital resources that might be adequate, but less than ideal, for their needs. Others, meanwhile, spend hours searching for one particular thing that may not even exist.

“How much time do you have to look for the perfect thing, or developing the perfect thing?” Wolf asked at a AAAS BEN Scholars institute last winter in Washington, D.C. “Some tend toward perfection, they want to do it the best they can… and they’ll reject things that other people made because they’re not perfect.”

But many instructors have limits, said one who was in the audience. “We all have a certain threshold for how much energy we’re willing to invest into anything,” the instructor said. “And as long as this thing is harder to find than I have time to put into it, then it’s like it doesn’t exist.”

For those seeking to improve classroom education, then, a crucial goal is to make faculty members better online searchers—and to create mechanisms that allow for more efficient searching. That’s where the BEN Portal and the BEN Scholars come in.

Barbara E. Goodman (left) a physiology professor in the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, and Marsha L. Matyas, director of education programs for the American Physiology Society

“We are turned on about digital resources—but what about our colleagues? That’s the issue,” said Barbara E. Goodman, a physiology professor in the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota who has served as a BEN Scholars mentor since the first class in 2006. “There’s a general lack of knowledge among science faculty members, in particular about the NSDL…

“We go back to our institutions and there are colleagues who are still straight didactic lecturers. But there are fewer of those complaints about the need for student-centered learning now than there were in 2006 or 2008.”

“The landscape is changing,” agreed Dario-Becker, a former BEN scholar who’s now a mentor to the current class. “Faculty know that, because the students are driving it. Students say, ‘Hey, why are you using the blackboard?… Why aren’t you posting your syllabus online?”

Brian Shmaefsky

The 34 BEN Scholars for 2012 are among the college and university science instructors who are embracing the change. As BEN Scholars, they learn how to tap the riches of digital libraries to transform the classroom—and how to reach out to colleagues who might also be interested.

“I always thought the digital people, the geeks, were the experts at those things,” said Brian Shmaefsky, a biology professor and service learning coordinator at Lone Star College in Kingwood, Texas. “I’m finding out that we’re all jumping into this with a lack of experience. But it’s not that difficult…. We can still get through this without too much computer savvy.”

For his main project as a BEN scholar, Shmaefsky is working with dental hygiene students on how to educate patients in oral health. They’re using advanced digital microscopes to capture before and after images of patients’ teeth in a way that will allow the students, and someday their patients, to visualize oral bacteria in healthy and diseased mouths.

Marcia Harrison-Pitaniello

Marcia Harrison-Pitaniello, a professor in biological sciences at Marshall University in West Virginia, is developing time-lapse photography resources that students can use to study plant physiology.

Time pressures are one factor in her work—but, she said, not the most important one. “How to deliver material so that students understand, and improve their understanding, and when there’s so much content out there, how to get around this huge body of knowledge and package it so students get something meaningful that they can then use themselves—I think that’s the issue,” Harrison-Pitaniello said.

One area where the learning resources have had helpful application is in the teaching of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students. McMartin cited research based on chemistry classes at the University of California-Berkeley: When lectures are captured and stored in audio and video formats, and in text transcripts, “one of the biggest findings… was that many of the ESL students loved it and they used it over and over again.”

Shmaefsky has a similar perspective. “I work with a lot of non-native students and learning-disabled students, especially in non-majors biology,” he said. “I have to look at multiple ways to present the information, where they can take it home and not have to rely entirely on me. So I’m really looking for resources that can reiterate the concepts.”

For Dario-Becker, the increasing use of digital classroom tools is a natural evolution in the work of a college professor. “I’ve been developing a lot of these resources and I just think its part of my job,” she said. “I want to be an efficient instructor and I want to communicate what I want to communicate.

“It used to be you just stood at the board and just wrote everything and your students would copy it—but you can’t teach that way anymore. My students now are mobile learners. You have to change with the times.”


Learn more about the BEN Scholars Program.

Learn more about the BEN portal, the National Science Digital Library Pathway for biological sciences education.