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Movement to Transform Undergraduate Biology Education Gains Traction Across U.S. Campuses

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Scott Freeman teaches Introductory Biology at the University of Washington | Photography by Filiz Efe McKinney, University of Washington

At the University of Washington, nearly 1,000 students file into Introductory Biology, but instead of a listening to a lecture, they work in small groups to answer the instructor's questions. At an evening seminar at Morgan State University, a professor serves tea and has her students map out connections between their research and the published scientific literature. And, across the 23 campuses of California State University, biotechnology faculty seek out undergraduates from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds to recommend for a key research scholarship.

These are just a few examples from a growing movement to reform undergraduate biology education, described in a new AAAS report, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: Chronicling Change, Inspiring the Future. The nation-wide initiative aims to encourage more students to study the life sciences and to help ensure they graduate with a basic understanding of science as a way to learn about the natural world.

Despite the growing demand for a workforce with a background in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles have found that many students who enter college planning to major in a STEM field don't complete their degrees as planned. A 2010 report showed that 33% of white students and 42% of Asian Americans completed a bachelor's degree in a STEM discipline within five years of entering college, compared with 22% of Latinos and 18% of African Americans.

33%

of white undergraduates planning to major in STEM as freshmen and

18%

of African American undergraduates completed these degrees in five years

HERI

Undergraduate biology education is a natural focus point for efforts to make higher education meet the needs of all students, according to Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. Biology is a core requirement for graduation at many colleges and universities, and many of today's STEM jobs require an understanding of core biology concepts.

Together, changes at colleges and universities across the United States, along with dedicated conferences and reports from AAAS as well as others from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Science Board, and elsewhere, mark encouraging progress. "We are close to a tipping point in undergraduate biology education," the new AAAS publication says.

The report follows a 2011 publication, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action, which among other things identified the core concepts and skills that students should master, through active, student-centered learning approaches in place of conventional lecture formats. It was the result of a series of meetings hosted in 2008 and 2009 by AAAS. The new publication includes case studies and other updates, as well as a summary and analysis of a national conference held in 2013. "We're viewing it as a guide or a blueprint for community mobilization," said George.

The 2013 Vision and Change conference drew 350 participants from 178 colleges and universities and 11 professional organizations, and was hosted by AAAS, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Vision and Change in Action: Annual conferences organized by the CSUPERB network at California State University include career-networking events for students (above) and workshops on active-learning methods for faculty (below). | Photos courtesy of CSUPERB

Offering a snapshot of the change underway, the new report includes an analysis of the 180 presentations at the conference, based on their program abstracts. Approximately 64% focused on introductory biology courses, and 57% described efforts to change classroom teaching methods. Others addressed curricula, testing, and teacher-training.

Forty percent of the abstracts listed no external funding sources, indicating that many faculty are implementing these changes without grants or other support from funding agencies outside their institutions. "This was an unexpected finding, but it was encouraging, because people are feeling that it's important to move forward," George said.

"Faculty don't necessarily feel empowered that they can change the policies to turn this into real actions on campus," said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. But, the report aims to show that they can do much more than they may think. "Faculty are responsible for the curriculum, for example. They're the ones that can talk about what they value in terms of teaching and learning," Malcom said.

Attracting and retaining under-represented minority and economically disadvantaged students in the biological sciences has been a key priority for many of the Vision and Change participants. At the University of Washington, 18% of students were failing Principal Lecturer Scott Freeman's Introductory Biology class, and a disproportionate number of them were under-represented minorities or the first in their families to go to college.

Freeman dropped the lecture format and adopted a more interactive format that included daily quizzes, clicker-based questions and answer sessions, and exercises that required the students to solve problems in small groups. The student failure rate has since dropped to 6%. And, the gap between the grades of first-generation students and continuing-generation students has closed by 45%.  

Sarah Eddy, a postdoctoral researcher who studied the course, said she has heard some skeptics say that active-learning approaches aren't feasible in classes with hundreds of students. The University of Washington course shows that's not the case, she said: "It's doable. It takes technology, because you have to create accountability [for example, by having all students answer questions via clickers], but it's not a barrier."

"Most students don't feel they are really allowed to [critique the literature] until you push them to."

Christine Hohmann, Morgan State University

Other reform efforts are targeting upper-level classes. A pair of seminars at Morgan State University in Maryland aims to familiarize science majors with the scientific literature in their areas of study and to improve their writing skills. The class is part of a larger study led by Duke researchers aimed at understanding the role of writing in promoting learning and engagement for diverse undergraduate thesis writers.

Christine Hohmann, who is an associate professor of biology and teaches the two seminars, said that one of the most powerful moments each semester occurs when students realize they can critique the literature and question whether a paper's data support its conclusions. "Most students don't feel they are really allowed to do that until you push them to," she said.

Independent evaluations of the students' work indicates that the courses are effective, improving by up to 30% students' ability to effectively place their work in the context of current research in their field, Hohmann said.  She and her colleagues also working on changes to larger, "gateway" biology classes, which will be aligned with the recommendations of Vision and Change.

The benefits of student-centered, active-learning courses — such as teaching students to think creatively, solve complex problems, and to communicate across disciplines — are often touted as helpful for students who plan to pursue doctoral degrees and academic careers. But 80% of the jobs in the biotechnology industry don't even require a Ph.D., according to Susan Baxter. She is the executive director of the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB), a network that involves over 650 students and faculty annually across all 23 CSU campuses to prepare students for biotechnology careers.

In addition to organizing conferences and mentoring opportunities for students, CSUPERB provides seed grants to biotech faculty to try new approaches, such as building a four-week research project looking at toxins in the American River into a developmental biology class at CSU Sacramento. This change has given undergraduates research experience on a campus where previously only 20% of undergraduates typically took on such projects. CSUPERB also provides various awards to students, including the President's Commission award. To recommend students for this award, CSUPERB asked faculty to expand their search beyond the students who had top grades and were "front and center" in order to find students from diverse backgrounds who would benefit, Baxter said.

The program has made a strong impact: CSUPERB student graduation rates are greater than 80% across all demographics, far exceeding average CSU STEM six-year graduation rates. And 80% of CSUPERB-supported students continue in life science career paths.

Many of these paths are not in academia. "That's baked into who we are," said Baxter. "Sometimes in higher education that's uncomfortable. But if you're aware of the job market realities it fundamentally affects how you mentor students."