Biology Curriculum Changes at New York University.

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Title of Abstract: Biology Curriculum Changes at New York University.

Name of Author: Ignatius Tan
Author Company or Institution: New York University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: Introductory Biology Upper-Level Biology Courses Student Centered Learning Biology Curriculum Curriculum Development

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Mark L. Siegal, New York University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: In the years since the Vision and Change initiative began, New York University has promoted the changes necessary to achieve the overarching goals: integrating core concepts and competencies throughout the Biology curriculum, focusing on student-centered learning and promoting a campus-wide commitment to change. Here we highlight the biology department’s successful changes, remaining challenges and future prospects.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The undergraduate Biology curriculum was reorganized to emphasize three key competencies - reasoning skills, quantitative skills and laboratory skills - as well as foundational knowledge. Reasoning skills courses engage students in problem solving and in critical analysis of the primary literature. Quantitative skills courses expose students to computational, statistical or mathematical approaches in biology. Laboratory skills courses promote student-centered inquiry through multi-week projects. The move away from a teacher-centered learning environment to a student-centered pedagogical approach typifies how our courses are taught. An example of this is our “At the Bench: Experimental Physiology” course which uses an adaptive learning approach to show students how physics is integral to the understanding of physiology. At another level, students also develop the skills to work as a team by collaborating with each other in an effort to build a robot that can best replicate a mechanical aspect of physiology. These discovery-based or hypothesis-driven projects, which span multiple class periods, engage students in the process of doing science. Engagement in the laboratory is also a priority in course offerings for non-majors. For example, our “Microbes, Meals, and Metagenomics” course immerses non-science majors in learning about molecular biology through multiple modes of instructional material and cooperative learning in the lab. Prior to going into the lab, Google Groups is used to assist peer-based discussions of students’ ideas and to foster the critical thinking necessary to formulate concepts. The increased level of engagement associated with this student-driven approach provides students with a better understanding of different concepts.

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 campus-wide effort to effect changes manifests in several forms. The university sponsors a Curriculum Development Challenge Fund that issues grants for innovative curricular proposals. This funding made it possible for the department to enhance several major and non-major courses. One type of enhancement that was directly funded by these curricular grants is a writing program that has been very successful in developing student writing skills in the sciences. The program assigns writing tutors to work directly with the students’ writing assignments, and a writing consultant to assist the faculty with more effective writing pedagogy. Although we only have two years of assessment results, all indications show that there is a strong alignment in the course objectives, the learning actions, and the forms of assessment with the courses’ stated foundational (i.e., content), applied (i.e., experimental application), and integrated (i.e., ideas and connections) outcomes. Campus-wide attention is also focused on science education for non-majors, with the goal of providing all students skills in scientific reasoning. Biology faculty serve on the college-wide Foundations of Scientific Inquiry steering committee, which is charged with assessing and guiding science offerings for non-majors.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: NYU has placed a high priority on developing as a ‘global network university’, with students circulating to various academic sites around the world. Establishing rigorous course offerings that maintain continuity while leveraging unique perspectives and talents at different sites is a challenge. The Chair and Directors of Undergraduate Studies for Biology interact frequently with Deans and other administrators to plan initiatives. The university has recognized a need for centralizing the effort to provide students with viable pathways through the global network, and recently took an important step in naming a Faculty Director of Global Studies to coordinate curricular initiatives. A key development in biology education in the context of the global network is the implementation of a new approach to teaching the various introductory science disciplines at our degree-granting Abu Dhabi campus. Introductory Physics, Chemistry and Biology are taught in an integrated way in a six-course Foundations of Science sequence. The intent is to emphasize the relationships between the three sciences in the introductory curriculum. The courses were developed by a committee of faculty members representing the STEM disciplines.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: A major challenge is in our large introductory Biology sequences. Maintaining quality and providing student-centered learning in a course of this size (800+ students) is difficult. Building upon the department’s track record of curricular improvements and continual consultation with university administration, the Biology Department has recently received approval on a proposal to the university’s Undergraduate Curriculum Committee to reorganize the first-year Principles sequence. Our approach was to separate the lab components of Principles of Biology I and Principles of Biology II into a single one-semester lab course, thereby concentrating effort and resources in a way that makes it easier to mount pedagogically advanced lab experiences. The labs will be replaced by recitation sections, which will provide students with a small-classroom atmosphere with more personal attention and an earlier introduction to scientific critical thinking. The one-semester lab course has been completely revised with hypothesis-driven modules that span several weeks and reinforce concepts learned from the lectures. The Biology undergraduate curriculum is continually being modified to address the needs of all students. A hallmark of our department is that every faculty member, regardless of position or rank, not only is involved in teaching undergraduates but also directly advises students on course selection and career paths. This provides students with the opportunity to interact and discuss research possibilities both formally and informally. A substantial fraction of Biology faculty are also involved in teaching non-majors, in whom we hope to instill interest in not only biology, but in a scientific world view more generally. Our majors will graduate as biologists who are well grounded in the scientific process, and will have the skill set to fully understand the world around them, which makes them more competitive in a global setting.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The university sponsored Curriculum Development Challenge Funds require that a report be written to explain the outcome of the curricular proposals. These reports along with the proposal are made available to NYU community and others.

Acknowledgements: New York University Curriculum Development Challenge Fund