Cascading Curriculum Changes from Course to Institute-Level

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Title of Abstract: Cascading Curriculum Changes from Course to Institute-Level

Name of Author: George Plopper
Author Company or Institution: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Core concepts, core competencies, flipped classroom, assessment, multidisciplinary

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Susan Gilbert, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Goals: (1) Implement Vision & Change (V&C) Core Competencies and Core Concepts (V&CCC) as program-level outcomes for all (~450) undergraduate biology students, (2) Map all 49 undergraduate courses to alignment with the V&CCC, (3) Review and revise core curriculum (5 courses) to better align courses with these concepts and competencies, (4) Use V&CCC as metrics for assessing the efficacy of the biology undergraduate programs, (5)Promote faculty development that includes backward course design techniques stemming from the V&CCC, and (6) Introduce new teaching methods into an upper division undergraduate/graduate course (BIOL 4750 Cell-Extracellular Matrix Interactions, enrollment 20-30) that target the fifth and sixth V&C Core Competencies. Intended outcomes: (1) Revision and modification of undergraduate curriculum to better promote V&CCC, (2) Improve assessment of V&CCC coverage in our undergraduate programs, (3) Inform faculty of the backward design, and (4) Improve teaching techniques for promoting the V&CCC in a multidisciplinary course.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Program-level changes (e.g., new courses and changes in existing courses) will be implemented beginning in the Fall 2013 semester. Assessment of the V&CCC techniques at the program level will begin in Spring 2014. Faculty development occurs via annual two-day workshops that teach faculty members, postdocs, and graduate students the fundamentals of backward design, assessment, and performance rubrics. The workshop has been in place since 2010. In BIOL 4750, we are using project-based learning methods, extensive peer-to-peer learning, and backward design techniques for each class period, including formal Learning Outcomes, assessment instruments, and application of Bloom’s Taxonomy, to promote communication between disciplines (e.g., biomedical engineering) and improve critical thinking. We are also collaborating with faculty experts in Management, Behavioral Psychology, and Education to define the most effective methods for promoting productive, collaborative interactions between biology and engineering students.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Program-level: We use Digital Measures (DM), our online faculty activity system, to record modifications of the learning outcomes for each course, each time it is taught. This allows us to easily track the impact of adding V&CCC to course organization and emphasis. We will add the mapped program-level outcomes for each course in the Fall 2013 semester to our DM database, to capture evidence (assessment) of the V&CCC in each course. Faculty development: We use pre- and post-workshop participant questionnaires to determine the net gain in learning, and collect sample course syllabi developed during the workshop. Course-level: We use rubrics for individual student performance, as well as group performance, for every student in each class period. Student attitude surveys are given at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester. We also record audio for every out-of-class meeting between the instructor and individual students or student teams, as well as video of every class meeting (IRB approved) to help us identify significant behavior traits in both the students and the instructor. Answers to all exam questions are scored according to how well they match the questions to assigned Bloom’s taxonomy category.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Program level: Following our curriculum self-review, we added Biostatistics to the core curriculum of Biology and Biochemistry/Biophysics programs. This will take effect in Fall 2013. We will also begin collecting evidence of V&CCC assessment in the Fall 2013 semester and anticipate that faculty will recognize areas to improve their teaching and/or assessment methods to better align their courses with these outcomes. Discussions about the curriculum changes led to discussions with members of the Mathematical Sciences Department, and this in turn led to an unexpected collaboration between Biology and Math faculty that resulted in a joint NSF grant application and weekly discussions of how to more effectively align the quantitative skills required of biology students with the existing Math courses. Faculty development: Faculty are more aware of backward design techniques, alternatives to exams as assessment tools, and grading rubrics. Course-level: Since introduction of backward design techniques and project-based learning in the past five years, the level of student critical thinking on exams and class projects, mapped to Bloom’s Taxonomy, has improved dramatically. We also have identified a core set of behaviors that correlate with successful, productive cooperation in interdisciplinary students groups, as well as methods for promoting these behaviors in future courses; we anticipate publishing a paper on this in 2014.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Program-level: Faculty resistance to changing how they organize, teach, and/or assess their courses is persistent and expected. Our intended method to address this is to lead by example: by demonstrating that the small time investment to provide program-level assessment can yield benefits to the instructors as well as the Department as a whole, we anticipate good compliance. Faculty development: The workshop is entirely voluntary, and participation in the School of Science is very low, albeit improving annually. Improving this will require more support from the administration. Course-level: Requiring students to practice backward design in projects, in every single class period, is too different from more traditional Biology classes for many students (and faculty) to enjoy widespread adoption. Those students who complete the course are generally very enthusiastic, and we use their suggestions to make the course more student-friendly each year.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Program level: Concomitant with our curriculum review, every department in the School of Science developed a set of learning outcomes, and this gave us an opportunity to share the original Vision & Change report with faculty and administrators across campus to help serve as a template. Dr. Plopper has presented miniature versions of the two-day faculty workshop at the American Society for Cell Biology annual conference and the University of Missouri Kansas City. He has also presented a poster on the course-level techniques in BIOL 4750 at two conferences. One student project from that course was published as a teaching resource in Science Signaling/STKE in 2013. Dissemination of V&CCC as targets for undergraduate students will progress as Dr. Plopper continues to serve on the Education Committee of the American Society for Cell Biology, co-Chair the campus Curriculum Committee and campus Core Curriculum review committee, present additional teaching workshops on and off campus, and publish additional findings from his current collaborative project. In her role as Department Head, Dr. Gilbert will continue dissemination up through the campus administration via performance planning, and organize an outside review of the Biology Department’s teaching and research missions.

Acknowledgements: Dr. Gilbert is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow Dr. Plopper is a National Academies Education Fellow in Life Sciences