Evolution: A Capstone Course to Assess Biological Competency

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Title of Abstract: Evolution: A Capstone Course to Assess Biological Competency

Name of Author: Amelia Ahern-Rindell
Author Company or Institution: University of Portland
Author Title: Associate Professor/Bio Assessment Director
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Evolutionary Biology
Course Levels: Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment
Keywords: Capstone Course, Assessment, Curricular Tracks, Curricular Themes, Evolution

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Goal: Utilize the V and C core concepts and competencies to create a cohesive curriculum organized around an encompassing biological theme that provides students with a relevant, conceptual framework that supports learning. Objectives: 1. The curriculum should provide disciplinary breadth by ensuring that all students are exposed to each biological level of organization (cellular/molecular, organismal, field/systems). 2. The curriculum should contain multiple tracks providing a flexible structure allowing for individualized student interest while ensuring sub-disciplinary depth by offering course groupings that are sequenced. 3. The curriculum should provide students with shared introductory and capstone experiences that have standardized content and comparable rigor between sections. 4. The curriculum should include an introductory series of required courses that introduce the V and C core concepts and competencies, which can be reinforced through upper division courses in each track, and finally mastered in the capstone course. 5. The curriculum should culminate with a rigorous capstone course that graduating seniors take that will bring thematic closure and can be used as the arena for assessing skill competencies and biological literacy.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: We decided to organize our curriculum around the all-encompassing theme of “evolution.” Evolution is the underlying foundation for all of the sub-disciplines in biology. This theme will be introduced to incoming freshmen in the 4-course general biology series that our majors take and will serve as a common thread that permeates through the upper division course offerings culminating with the capstone course, Bio 453 Evolution. Using a conceptual theme like “evolution” will tie the whole curriculum together and help students make sub-disciplinary connections. The general biology series of courses are being revised to introduce the V and C core concepts and competencies, and to standardize content between different sections of the same course. Upper division courses have been categorized into the 3 organizational levels and all students must take at least one lab course (and its requisite lecture course) from each level. These courses are also being revised to contain material that demonstrates evolutionary principles. The requirement for all graduating seniors to take the Evolution course is already in place and the course is currently being revised to fulfill its new role as the capstone course and the vehicle in which students will be assessed for proficiency of the V and C core concepts and competencies. We are in the process of designing 4-year course plans for specified career tracks for those students who have particular interests and already made decisions regarding their professional paths.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We ran a pilot assessment study on graduating seniors this past spring using internal and external measures. We used the national standardized ETS Biology exam for the first time to test approximately 25% of our graduating biology majors in order to assess their relative performance. Some of these same students were also assessed using a graded assignment in the Evolution Capstone course to ensure maximum student effort. At the close of the semester, biology faculty evaluated this assignment using an agreed upon rubric to assess certain core concepts and competencies. Each paper received two blind evaluations and then the data was summarized in an Assessment Report submitted to the College of Arts and Sciences. Each year we will assess a different V & C core competency in the Evolution Capstone Course based on a 6-year rotation cycle: 2012-2013: Ability to apply the process of science, 2013-2014: Ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science, 2014-2015: Ability to use quantitative reasoning, 2015-2016: Ability to use modeling and simulation, 2016-2017: Ability to understand the relationship between science and society, 2017-2018: Ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines This fall we will use an internal measure to assess all declared freshmen biology majors as they enter our biology program. This will give us a baseline indication of this student cohort?s biological knowledge and will provide a means of reference for future assessment, in particular 4 years later in the Evolution capstone course. This pre- and post-assessment scenario will allow us to more accurately evaluate our program and determine whether we are meeting our desired goals and objectives.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We anticipate that these revisions to our curriculum will lead to better designed courses that improve student learning and make studying biology more enjoyable and fulfilling for students. We also think that a more structured curriculum will help students in devising a plan to take full advantage of what courses and opportunities are available. Having a more structured curriculum should make our program more cohesive and meaningful for the students so they more readily recognize its relevancy and benefits. We also hope that our new curriculum will be viewed as a model within our College of Arts and Sciences and will encourage other departments to critically evaluate their own programs, especially the other science programs, and that it might spur conversations to create interdisciplinary courses for science majors and non-science majors.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Our faculty is still challenged by the following but find that by talking through the issues together it is easier to find solutions than working independently on only the courses that we each teach. 1. How to reduce fact-laden emphasis in courses and reduce the time we utilize the lecture format? 2. How to standardize course content and rigor in different sections of the same required general biology courses taught by different faculty? 3. What content should be retained in the Evolution capstone course and what should be removed in order to make sufficient time for assessment activities? 4. What should be the capstone class size to ensure sufficient student-teacher and student-student interactions can take place? 5. How can we increase interdisciplinary opportunities for our majors with our current institutional isolating departmental structure? 6. How do we increase research experiences within the curriculum with the high enrollment of majors relative to the number of tenure-track faculty with student friendly research programs? 7. How do we get the administration to recognize and reward faculty for research collaborations with students?

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have not disseminated any of our findings as of yet. We do hope to share our curricular revisions with other higher educational institutions in the Portland region. The author of this abstract has informally shared some of our curricular revisions with a few institutions for which she has performed program reviews and will continue to do so in the future when appropriate. One of our Assessment Committee members is a co-PI on an NSF grant working to make introductory biology courses more student-centered and inquiry-driven. He hopes to share our curricular revisions with the other co-PIs and their biology colleagues and obtain some feedback. We are more than willing to share more formally our efforts once we have completed our revisions by writing an article and submitting it for peer-review and hopefully eventual publication.

Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge all of my colleagues in the Biology Department but in particular, the faculty who worked very hard this past year as members of our Assessment Committee. Their time and effort is the reason why we have achieved as much as we have. We should also be recognized as the Departmental Curriculum Committee, since it was our efforts with assessment that also inspired revamping of our curricular program. I also wish to acknowledge the Biology Chair for her insight and willingness to try out unconventional ideas and sell them to the administration.