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Fall 2003 Vol. 3 No. 3



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Head of the Class

New Project Schools University Faculty in Effective Teaching

Participants at the National Academies' pilot summer institute for undergraduate biology professors, held at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Aug. 18-19, 2003; photos by Joe Koshollek
Early in his career, professor Daniel J. Klionsky was pretty satisfied with how he ran his introductory biology class for undergraduates. He was passionate about the subject as well as about teaching. But his enthusiasm didn't rub off on many students. They'd freeze up when he asked them to explain concepts. Colleagues who got his students in subsequent courses would question whether Klionsky had taught them anything at all. He soon realized that heavy doses of traditional lecturing made students too passive. He wanted active learners who soaked up real knowledge.

Klionsky ultimately crafted a plan that moved students from the sidelines into the game. He focused the course on material that he considered crucial, and based grades entirely on quizzes that would be given at the beginning of each class to spur students to stay on top of assignments. He organized everyone into groups that drew on each member's knowledge and understanding to tackle challenging science problems. Over the past seven years, the plan has paid off. Students are more motivated to keep up with coursework. He devotes more class time to demonstrating scientific techniques in depth. Class participation has increased. And quiz results offer daily feedback on both his performance and his students' improvement.

This year the University of Michigan cell biologist received a National Science Foundation Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars -- a grant of $300,000 over four years -- which he will use to reshape the university's introductory biology curriculum to an active-learning format. "It's great to be recognized for excellent teaching," he said.

Klionsky was one of about 30 biology professors, primarily from large, research-centered universities, who attended the National Research Council's pilot summer institute held on the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus to exchange ideas about effective undergraduate biology instruction and discuss how teaching could inform their research activities. They also brainstormed about ideas for next year's institute, which will officially debut an ongoing series of these meetings.

The project stems from the Research Council's 2002 report Bio 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. Undergraduate biology education has not kept pace with revolutionary changes in the field, including new laboratory techniques and greater computer power, the report says. The U.S. biotechnology industry in particular has seen a shrinking pool of homegrown graduates who are adequately prepared to join its work force. And on the whole, society will suffer if citizens know too little about science to make informed decisions in their everyday lives, said William B. Wood, co-chair of the organizing committee that planned the pilot institute and an eminent geneticist at the University of Colorado.

At the three-day gathering in August, scholars explored innovative teaching methods and lessons that encourage students to learn -- as scientists do -- through active problem solving and discussion. They also looked at the role of technology, and ways to pierce an academic culture that typically subordinates teaching to research. And they experienced the creative spark that appears when people from different disciplines and backgrounds collaborate.

Photo by Joe Koshollek Their enthusiasm was unmistakable. While fleshing out his team's project about how crickets communicate, one participant practically jumped out of his seat. "I feel like I want to do this as soon as I get back!" Such passion for teaching is what the institute hopes to nurture in scholars who are basic researchers at heart, and then spread among a community of like-minded colleagues.

Scientific evidence on how people learn supports the effectiveness of inquiry-based, hands-on learning strategies. Still, many participants expressed a need for more comprehensive studies to assess the impact of these methods.

Robin Wright, an associate dean and professor at the University of Minnesota, emphasized that high-quality instruction and solid research are not mutually exclusive. And teaching, she said, "is about sharing ourselves with our students."

Chris Day, an assistant professor of botany at the Madison campus, agreed. Plus, he said that he and other young professors could start with baby steps when trying out novel approaches in the classroom. "It could be a lot of fun -- not just for me, but for the students. Why not give it a try?"   -- Vanee Vines

(For additional information on the institute series, contact Kerry Brenner, Board on Life Sciences, tel. 202-334-1245 or e-mail <kbrenner@nas.edu>.)



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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences