About V&C: A Call to Action (2011)

Original description


Over the past year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) held a series of conversations with faculty, administrators, students, and other stakeholders on the future of undergraduate biology education. To put the conversations in context, the following provides a brief overview of why these conversations were initiated, the current efforts by funding agencies to meet the needs identified by these conversations, and the hoped for outcomes of these and subsequent conversations.


Both the disciplines of biology and of science education have undergone a revolution. The major focus of the biological sciences – understanding life – remains unchanged, but breakthrough discoveries of the second half of the 20th century have changed the basic nature of the questions asked, while new and emerging technologies are changing the ways key questions are addressed. In undergraduate science education, new approaches and new technologies are also emerging based on evolving theories of learning. New developments in higher education have changed the manner in which people pursue higher education, and there is also a growing appreciation of the need to broaden participation within the sciences by advancing the education of all students, including those from underrepresented groups and those who will enter careers outside of science.

There is also a growing realization of the necessity to fully inform and educate all students about the wealth of professions available to those who study the sciences and about the way science is done. BIO2010 helped rouse interest in the need for reform of undergraduate biology education raising many important issues and giving suggested approaches, mostly applied to those students preparing for a career in biomedical research. This program could serve as a base for a broader approach that would encompass all the sub-disciplines within the biological sciences.


Most of the current efforts to support needed changes in undergraduate biology education are centered either at the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Pertinent efforts at NSF include the support of materials development, changes in course delivery, and efforts in faculty development through the Course, Curricular and Laboratory Improvement Program managed by the Division of Undergraduate Education. Other relevant programs include the Career Program managed by the Directorate for the Biological Sciences and other research directorates at NSF. The HHMI programs are by invitation only but serve a variety of institutions in their efforts to respond to the forces for change. For example, HHMI supports summer institutes at the University of Wisconsin focused on faculty change at research institutions and those with large introductory courses. In addition the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has initiated a program, Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) to involve postdoctoral students in educational change.


The overarching goal of the on-going conversations has been to provide a forum where the biology community can gain insight into the changes that need to take place, how best to effect those changes, and how best to support efforts for change. As a culmination of these conversations, a conference will be held in Washington, DC on July 15-17, 2009. At this meeting, those currently involved in reform will exchange information about what they are doing, network across the various sub-communities within biology (e.g., emerging fields such as systems biology, bioinformatics, and proteomics as well as traditional fields such as molecular, biochemical, ecological, organismal, physiological, evolutionary, botanical, zoological, microbial, etc.), devise mechanisms to improve coordination, and raise the visibility and degree of adaptation of such efforts. The meeting will result in a printed report and action plan for improving the quality of undergraduate biology education, as well as an online resource where stakeholders can share information and access specific resources to implement the ideas and strategies developed at the conference.


2011 Report- Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action

These meetings in turn resulted in a major report published by AAAS, A Call to Action, which recommended specific actions aimed at improving undergraduate biology education nationwide:

  • integrate core concepts and competencies throughout the curriculum;
  • focus on student-centered learning;
  • promote a campuswide commitment to change; and
  • engage the biology community in the implementation of change.

The key recommendations included articulating the core life science concepts all undergraduates need to understand:

  • evolution;
  • pathways and transformations of energy and matter;
  • information flow, exchange, and storage;
  • structure and function; and
  • systems.

The 2011 report also identified the important need for undergraduates to understand not only the process of science, but also the interdisciplinary nature of the new biology and how science is closely integrated within society. In addition, students should be competent in communication and collaboration, as well as have a certain level of quantitative competency and a basic ability to understand and interpret data. Further, to be current in biology, students should have experience with modeling, simulation, and computational and systems-level approaches to biological discovery and analysis, and should be familiar with using large databases. This resulted in a set of competencies:

  • ability to apply the process of science;
  • ability to use quantitative reasoning;
  • ability to use modeling and simulation;
  • ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science;
  • ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines; and
  • ability to understand the relationship between science and society.

Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action provided a set of principles to guide undergraduate biology education reform. Importantly, it also provided important guidance for best practices in pedagogy, the input of undergraduate students, and a lens for broadening participation and truly making biology inclusive of all students.

[the above was excerpted and modified from Vision and Change: A Call to Action and Vision and Change: Chronicling Change, Inspiring the Future]