Biology Curriculum Change through Use of Civic Engagement

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Title of Abstract: Biology Curriculum Change through Use of Civic Engagement

Name of Author: Joseph Koonce
Author Company or Institution: Case Western Reserve University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: Civic Engagement Active Learning Problem Solving Biology Curriculum Change

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: After the 2009 Vision and Change Conference, the Biology Department at Case Western Reserve University began a series of undergraduate curriculum initiatives that incorporated civic engagement to stimulate active learning. Collaboration with regional and national civic engagement networks and the creation of a local research coordination network focused on undergraduate biology education were essential components of these initiatives. These initiatives led to development of frameworks to sustain student learning gains and skill development through community partnerships and to promote undergraduate dissemination of research and education products to citizens. Three goals guided our efforts to encourage active learning through civic engagement in undergraduate biology courses: 1) to improve student learning gains through development and implementation of undergraduate environmental-service learning and community-based research curricula and courses; to provide venues for public environmental education by undergraduates as well as enhance access to environmental careers for undergraduates; and to meet needs of the region's non-profit and government-sponsored environmental organizations addressing natural resource conservation and development issues associated with Lake Erie and its Northeast Ohio tributaries. Over the past three years, we made significant progress toward all of these objectives and implemented curriculum changes with funding support from NSF, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and from local governmental organizations.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: In partnership with the Cleveland Metroparks, we successfully incorporated civic engagement components into two existing laboratory courses (Ecology Lab and Aquatic Biology Lab) and revised an existing course (Quantitative Biology Lab) to focus solely on analysis of problems of interest to our community partner. During the fall semester of the past three years, traditional laboratory sessions in the Ecology and Aquatic Biology lab courses were replaced with joint project teams between the two courses working on a common course module involving field work, data analysis, and public presentation of findings for various restoration projects in the Cleveland Metroparks system. The changes in the Quantitative Biology Lab were more extensive with replacement of a set sequence of programming and data analysis projects with an inquiry-driven exploration of unanalyzed data associated with the planned restoration of an urban wetland complex in a newly acquired property of the Cleveland Metroparks. Students in this course formed project teams and made public presentations of their findings to a general audience through two-minute videos. For the past two years, each offering of the course stimulated additional data collection by the Cleveland Metroparks and expansion of the scope of the projects.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: The initiatives have produced four main types of outcomes. First, the initiatives have established a framework to sustain educational partnerships with the Cleveland Metroparks and other community organizations. Second, the initiatives have demonstrated the feasibility of incorporating civic engagement into course modules and to entire courses. Third, the initiatives have shown comparable student skill mastery with more traditional approaches, but student perceptions of learning gains appears stronger with civic engagement in general and with presentations of findings to general audiences more specifically. Finally, the initiatives are well supported institutionally with respect to utilization of existing infrastructure to support service learning and student service interests. Evidence for these outcomes comes from use of SALG (Student Assessment of Learning Gains) instruments, objective assessments of skill mastery, peer evaluation, and public evaluation of work products.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The initiatives have had some effect on receptiveness to using civic engagement as a form of inquiry-based education. Limited versions of this method have been incorporated into introductory biology laboratory courses, and there has been successful transition from first adopters to new faculty members. Within the institution, there has also be a notable expansion of engagement of faculty and students through centers of education reform and service learning on campus. A major product of the initiatives is the recent launch of a SENCER Center for Innovation with a Great Lakes environmental theme at Case Western Reserve University. This SCI - Great Lakes builds on and inherits the collaborations in the GLISTEN and RCN-UBE projects and will be an important stimulus for regional workshops for improving undergraduate education in biology and other STEM disciplines.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The curriculum changes in the Biology Department of Case Western Reserve University had to overcome both institution and inter-institutional barriers. Enthusiasm for the changes was strongest among the initial faculty participants, but skepticism of students and other faculty limited acceptance. Surprisingly, some of the most capable undergraduates voiced concerns that inquiry-based approaches to technical material did not contribute to their own learning gains. It seems clear that students who have learning styles that rely on individual work and who prefer explicit instructions for skill development are not comfortable with using open-ended problems to provide a real world context for their studies. Coordinating meaningful interaction between ambivalent undergraduates and community partners during the academic year was also difficult. Without our use of undergraduate liaisons, who functioned as both as representatives of the community partner and as peer mentors, we would have had difficulty in maintaining enthusiasm throughout the semester. Many students expressed great satisfaction with the role of the undergraduate liaison assistance. We used workshops to inform other faculty and expanded explanation of pedagogical rationale to students to improve reception. Our grants to support the initiatives also required inter-institutional collaboration. Central coordination of recruitment and training of undergraduate stewardship liaisons through the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship through Education Network provided well-trained and reliable undergraduates, who effectively bridged divergent interests of community partners, faculty and undergraduate students enrolled in the courses. It proved to be more difficult to create inter-collegiate teams of students working on common problems, but we were more successful in creating networks of collaborating faculty and representatives of community partners by sending teams for summer training at SENCER Institutes.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Dissemination activities have included presentations at national meetings of scientific societies, sharing experience with curriculum changes at national summer institutes, convening local and regional workshops to promote use of civic engagement in biology and other STEM course work, and creation of a regional network for continuing innovative curriculum initiatives.

Acknowledgements: In addition to ongoing support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, two grant sources proved to be critical for initiating these curriculum changes. An NSF RCN-UBE Incubator Project, Lake Erie Watershed Research and Education Network and the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship through Education Network (GLISTEN) funded through a grant from the Learn and Serve America Higher Education program of the Corporation for National and Community Service to the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement.