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“Vision and Change”: How New Research and New Technology are Transforming Biology 101

A dramatic overhaul of the College Board advanced placement (AP) test in biology, scheduled for introduction in spring 2013, has thousands of high school science teachers scurrying to revise their curriculum for this fall.

The change represents a fundamental shift from measuring the acquisition of information to evaluating the ability to apply new information and think critically. Since the AP test represents what students are expected to have learned in college-level introductory biology courses, professors also are grappling with how they too must adapt.

About 175 leaders in this reform effort packed a conference, “Implementing Vision and Change at the Introductory Biology Level,” held from 28 June to 1 July at AAAS. It was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) award for the “Introductory Biology Project” to the University of Oklahoma and three co-sponsoring publishing companies.

The meeting is part of the ongoing “Vision and Change” program launched by NSF and AAAS in 2006. The program and the AP test overhaul are independent efforts to modernize teaching in the biological sciences—and to excite students about those fields of study and research.

On 1 June, NSF awarded AAAS a grant of $842,000 to identify and share what faculty, departments, and professional societies are doing since the launch of the “Vision and Change (V&C) in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action”, Including organizing a Summer or Fall 2013 conference.

A New Universe for Biology Education

Biology is becoming the gateway to understanding the complexity of scientific problems and as an interface with society, explained Arizona State University’s James P. Collins in the opening plenary talk. “You take biology in order to learn about how messy the world really is, how complex biology really is.”

James P. Collins

He pointed to satellite environmental monitoring systems as one of the tools that have expanded biology from the micro subcellular level to the macro level of biosystems at the continental level.

The ability to manage huge data sets and access information through the Internet and mobile devices, which was unimaginable a generation ago, is now so commonplace that it is taken for granted. He said it is creating a “social-network-driven way of learning.”

The power of these tools is causing us to reconsider what we ask of students, Collins said. It is reducing the need for factual memory, but this “disaggregation of facts and ideas” places an increased premium on teaching how to process, synthesize, and apply the torrent of readily available information.

The process of discovery likewise is changing. The formal, structured process of discovery that characterized past centuries is increasingly becoming a process of individuals from diverse disciplines who are networked together, often with minimal structure.

At the academic level, leading universities are putting online courses up for free. Collins summarized a BBC report noting that the first online course from MIT earlier this year approached the combined total of students who have ever trod between its ivied walls. The online courses at MIT this fall are expected to reach a half-million students.

This is changing the notion of what a university looks like and “people are trying to catch up with it,” he said.

Advanced Placement: A Crucial Catalyst

Content no longer is king. The “march through chapters” of a textbook to glean and memorize facts will no longer be measured by the AP test nor should it be taught in introductory biology courses, said principal meeting organizer Gordon Uno, the David Ross Boyd Professor of plant reproductive biology and science education at the University of Oklahoma.

Gordon Uno

The new education paradigm focuses on processes of scientific reasoning. Laboratory work will assume a new prominence and, he said, it will shift from a teacher-directed orientation “to students being more independent investigators. They will design and conduct their own experiments based on the questions that they generate.”

Too much of what currently passes for student involvement in research uses them only to gather or input data. Uno called that “misuse and abuse of student researchers.” He believes they should also be involved in formulating hypotheses, analyzing the data, and every other facet of the research process.

“The four big ideas that inform the entire curriculum framework in biology are evolution, energy, information, and interaction. And there has been an attempt to cross-pollinate,” to integrate the concepts throughout the text, said Uno, “so that you can’t paste together the pages that have to do with evolution” as some schools have done.

“Learning objectives are a combination of content and skills,” he added. “They are peppered throughout the curriculum framework in all of the sections. Those are what ETS [the assessment development and research organization] is using to design the new AP exam.”

The test itself will require students to work with evidence; guessing will be eliminated. There is the traditional long essay and also a new section that requires short-form essay responses of one to three paragraphs in length. He said the practice exam will be available by the end of the summer.

Moving Beyond the Teaching of Facts

Feedback from the audience suggested just how difficult this change in orientation might be for professors. “We all love content…,” said Uno. “You teach what you know and what you love, which is fine.” But the trick will be to move beyond simply teaching facts that are known, to using that information to illustrate and teach broader principles that help students learn and understand in different contexts that which is not yet known.

Uno stressed the importance of good mentoring skills in teaching. Research has shown that what matters to students is not the accomplishments of the professor but engagement with their students and the students’ projects.

He urged them to make “intentionality” the core of their teaching. “You can’t just say that you do something, you actually have to process it in your head and then do it on a regular basis.”

Uno put that into practice with his biology course by making evolution “a mantra” that was incorporated into every lesson and spoken every day. “My challenge to myself was, how do I say the word ‘evolution’ today? It changed my entire approach to teaching.”

The Power of Peer Instruction

Ralph Preszler has been tinkering with the form and content of the introductory biology course for science majors at New Mexico State University for several years; each iteration is based upon evaluation of the one that preceded it. Much of the work has been done with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Ralph Preszler, an associate professor of biology at New Mexico State University, talks with colleagues at the conference “Implementing Vision and Change at the Introductory Biology Level.”

In measuring outcomes, he said he has been “a bit surprised” to find that peer instruction works best in the first course when “used in separate, small workshop settings.” But students mature and their social dynamics change during the first year of college; by the second-year biology course “they are doing better when we used the peer instructors in a more dynamic assembly-style lecture with breakout sessions.”

“Peer instructors [undergraduates who have already completed the course] understand students in ways that neither graduate students nor myself can,” said Preszler. They are closer to the experience of the students and bring energy to the process that graduate students often direct toward their own research priorities.

They are a particularly valuable source of feedback on whether or not students are understanding what is presented in lectures. Preszler and the other professors have used this to modify their presentations or have the peers help guide students through the confusion to an understanding of the subject.

Many of the peers would have to work elsewhere to help cover their university and living expenses and so the $1500 they receive per semester helps them to focus on their peer responsibilities as their job.

While all students benefit from the program, under-represented minorities benefit more than others, Preszler said. “We still have a performance gap, it’s just a tiny bit smaller. If we can make any progress, we feel that it’s worth it.”


Learn more about the conference, “Implementing Vision and Change at the Introductory Biology Level.”

Learn more about the “Vision and Change” program.

Learn more about the 2011 report, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.


Bob Roehr

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