A revolution

The disciplines of biology and science education have undergone a revolution in the past two decades. 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. In addition, research examining how students learn has demonstrated that students can only learn about science by doing science. This has resulted in a shift away from breadth and into depth, emphasizing scientific competencies that underlie the process of science.

Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education is an initiative born of this revolution. Spearheaded by AAAS with support from the National Science Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the United States Department of Agriculture, Vision & Change has involved stakeholders from educators to professional society partners to policymakers. Through research, meetings, conferences, and discussions over the course of a decade, consensus reports have been produced with the aim of uniting the undergraduate biology education community under a set of common principles.

A call to action

In 2006, a small group from the NSF’s Directorates for Education and Human Resources and for Biological Sciences joined with leaders from HHMI to develop a shared vision for the future of undergraduate biology education and the changes needed to achieve it. Motivated by significant advances underway in the biological sciences and emerging research in the science of learning, these innovators, joined by leaders from the NIH, recommended conducting a series of conversations with college and university faculty and administrators around the country. In these forums, biology educators could identify the changes that needed to take place, discuss how to effect those changes, and explore how best to support efforts for change. Ultimately, the goal was to help define and advance a shared vision for the future of undergraduate biology education.

In 2008, with this vision in mind, AAAS organized six regional conversations with leading biology faculty, administrators, students, and professional organizations. Their charge was to identify effective undergraduate biology education practices on campuses around the country. In 2009, partly on the basis of the findings of the regional conversations, AAAS hosted a national conference in Washington, D.C., to continue the conversations that took place at the regional conferences. More than 500 biologists and others attended this first national conference, representing a broad base of both institutions of higher learning and areas of interest.

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]

A chronicle of change

The report from the 2009 meeting provided a blueprint for the follow-up conference in 2013. Leading biologists, educators, administrators, students, professional society representatives, and other stakeholders reconvened to take stock of what had been accomplished, what had been learned, and the kinds of tools and strategies that have worked to connect teaching with learning. Emerging from this intensive collaborative meeting are the stories in a report that document how faculty, administrators, and students have come together to lead change, to cultivate faculty as agents of change, to set forth specific strategies for changing the student experience in undergraduate biology curricula, and to present examples of the kinds of evidence we need in order to evaluate how successful we have been and what remains to be accomplished.

Working in small- and large-group settings, conference participants identified significant advances that had taken place in undergraduate biology education since the original 2009 Vision and Change call to action, highlighted strategies known to work, and identified what would still be needed to move forward in each topic area. Conference attendees also completed surveys designed to determine how successful Vision and Change efforts on their campuses had been to date, as well as the types of challenges they continued to face in improving undergraduate biology education. The report on this conference, Vision and Change: Chronicling Change, Inspiring the Future, was published in 2015. The report highlights the conference discussions and recommendations, and chronicles many of the accomplishments and challenges biologists and educators nationwide have faced in improving undergraduate biology education. It also synthesizes the road maps participants suggested for accelerating change and moving forward. Examples of programs inspired by the original Vision and Change initiative are highlighted throughout, with additional projects and programs listed in the appendix.

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

Unpacking a movement

To achieve the initial goal and driving philosophy behind Vision & Change, organizers designed a series of meetings where conversations among biologists, biology education researchers, and practitioners (representing all fields of the discipline and a variety of institutional types) exchanged ideas about what needs to be done to improve undergraduate biology education and how to do it. From that, the initiative produced a series of documents to help advance biology education to better serve all stakeholders, from students and faculty to universities and the nation itself.  The first Vision & Change document concerned setting the vision and inspiring the change, while the second chronicled changes called for in the first document.

As a result of these two documents, there has been a general impression that Vision & Change efforts have achieved some success, but to date we have lacked objective, quantifiable measures to confirm or deny that impression. So, questions remain: How effective have these efforts been? How deeply have they penetrated the community? How have Vision & Change suggestions been disseminatedaccepted, and adapted? What have been the outcomes of that adaption?  This third document continues in the spirit and design of the first two. But it is unique not only for its concentration on determining outcomes, but also because 1) the document contains no conclusions, only a set of ideas concerning next steps, and 2) a new set of experts—researchers in the field of educational change at the university level—have been added to the discussants involved.

The resulting document, Vision and Change: Unpacking a Movement and Sharing Lessons Learned, calls upon the broader university research and education community to help the Vision & Change initiative determine outcomes of change efforts nationwide. It contains ideas generated at a meeting of prominent biologists, biology education practitioners and researchers, and others interested in studying change in higher education, who came together to discuss how best to determine the outcomes of a movement such as Vision & Change. Hopefully, it will stimulate research in the field of educational change that will not only inform a large number of hard-working people of the outcomes of their efforts to effect change, but also lead to more effective future change efforts.

[the above was excerpted from Vision and Change: Unpacking a Movement and Sharing Lessons Learned]