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Conference Mobilizes Educators to Transform Undergraduate Biology Education

A quick look at the front page of any national newspaper or newspaper web site shows that science and technology are increasingly important to the national policy agenda.

But when the public attempts to learn more about stem cell policy—the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells, for example—some no doubt flash back to the last time they studied biology: First year of college, that dreaded introductory biology course. For many, a cavernous lecture hall with 300 of their closest classmates and multiple choice tests asking minutia about cell organelles or the difference between metaphase and early anaphase of cell mitosis.

Seeking to transform and improve undergraduate biology education, especially for non-majors whose introductory course serves as their only college exposure to science, 500 faculty members, education administrators, and policymakers assembled in Washington, D.C., at a three-day conference sponsored by AAAS and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The goal of the conference was to talk about how to bring biology education into the 21st century. Speakers urged participants to design innovative courses and materials that would engage all students, not just biology majors, with important concepts that would prepare them to work and participate in an increasingly scientific and technological society.

In addition, the educators stressed the importance of showing students how scientific inquiry is conducted, including how to evaluate and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world.


Arden Bement

"Realizing that the status quo in science education is not achieving the results we need, we have to undertake this bold challenge, breathing new life into our classrooms," said NSF Director Arden Bement. He added that students learn best when they interact with their subjects like researchers in a laboratory—through carefully articulated questions and observations rather than rote memorization.

The "Vision & Change in Undergraduate Biology Education" conference, held from 15-17 July, marked the second of four parts to the three-year project. Beginning in summer 2006, AAAS and the NSF organized a series of conversations with more than 200 faculty members, administrators, and other stakeholders from around the country, seeking input on how to improve undergraduate biology education. They also held smaller workshops with undergraduates, which included both biology majors and non-majors.

The notes from the conversations were then complied into a report and reviewed by a 16-person advisory board, which set the agenda for the conference. The next two steps will be to create a set of formal guidelines for faculty members and university administrators, followed by implementing the recommendations.


Carol Brewer

"We heard overwhelming excitement from faculty about the revolution underway in the biological sciences and an eagerness to share their passion with their students," said Carol Brewer, advisory board co-chair and associate dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Montana.

"This isn't your grandfather's biology," she said.

She also encouraged professors to develop curricula that incorporate new findings in educational research. "Teaching methods should be as innovative as the science taught in class," she said.

AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, a conference co-chair who also serves as the executive editor of the journal Science, emphasized that new technologies are allowing scientists to ask new questions and obtain knowledge at an incredible rate.


Alan I. Leshner

Leshner said the goal of undergraduate education should be to give students a "fundamental knowledge of what science is, and what it is not, along with some key concepts." He also cautioned the conference participants not to fall into the trap of shifting the goal toward developing a scientific workforce, but, rather, remaining concerned with science for all undergraduates.

"From where I sit, we are living in the most exciting and dynamic time... with science assuming a near omni-present role," said Leshner. The conference was among the most important in his 30 years in Washington, D.C., he added.

In addition to plenary addresses, the conference featured several working group sessions where participants met in smaller groups to discuss ideas and challenges for transforming undergraduate biology education at their institutions. The nine working groups were categorized into three broad themes: goals of undergraduate education; effective classroom practices; and bringing about institutional change.

Jeffrey Sich, assistant dean and associate professor of biology at Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri, said that many faculty members talk about institutional change but they are often unaware of how to work within their institution to initiate reform.

Sich, who participated in a working group on creating institutional change, said that encouraging colleagues on the biology faculty to incorporate a new teaching method is a wholly different from convincing a department head or dean to overhaul the department. While a colleague might offer resistance due to a reluctance to recreate teaching materials, a dean or provost might raise budget concerns.

"Each level of an education institution has a different hurdle or obstacle," said Sich, "and you have to know which force is working against you."

Despite the challenges, Sich said that professors must do what they think is in the best interest of their students. Sometimes, he said, it means standing up for what they believe is right. Other times, it means waiting until the time is right to raise a concern.

Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, said that the National Academy of Sciences' path-breaking report, Taking Science to School, calls for science education to have four equal strands: teach students about what science has discovered about the natural world; provide them with the ability to evaluate scientific claims based on logic and evidence; allow them to understand how scientific knowledge is developed; and give them experience in participating in scientific discourse as a productive activity.

Though the four strands are of equal importance, the final three stands are largely being neglected in undergraduate education, said Alberts.

"There isn't enough room for the final three strands if faculty are spending too much time on the first strand," said Alberts. After suggesting that teachers are testing mainly for the memorization of facts, he added: "It's much more important that students know how science is done than knowing the parts of a cell."


James Collins

Citing a 27 April speech at the National Academy of Sciences by U.S. President Barack Obama, James Collins, the NSF assistant director for biological sciences, said the administration clearly sees science education as a top priority.

Collins recounted Obama's speech to the NAS audience which stated that he "didn't intend to have [the United States] out-educated . . . and it's going to take far more than just the work of the federal government."

Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Educations and Human Resources, said that the next steps for the program advisory board will be to distill the conversations from the meeting into a series of recommendations to eventually be implemented by colleges and universities around the country.

"It is no doubt an incredibly ambitious task," said George. Her unit organized the conference, along with the project advisory board and the National Science Foundation. "But the conference attendance shows that there is a large body of committed faculty that is willing to transform biology education."


Benjamin Somers

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