Improving Undergrad Biology via Engagement & Collaboration

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Title of Abstract: Improving Undergrad Biology via Engagement & Collaboration

Name of Author: John Geiser
Author Company or Institution: Western Michigan University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, General Biology
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Introductory Biology Chemistry Interdisciplinary Teaching Assistant

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Renee Schwartz, Western Michigan University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The goal of our undergraduate biology change project was to enhance the relevance and accessibility of our introductory level biology courses. Beginning in 2009, we gathered instructors from biology, chemistry, and science education to improve the first-year experience of our science majors. Students take both introductory biology and chemistry, often at the same time; yet they often fail to see the relevance of either subject to their lives or connections of biology and chemistry concepts to each other. We secured NSF funding to develop 10 new laboratory investigations that highlighted the interdependence of biology and chemistry concepts and engaged students in active investigations. Impact on student outcomes was determined by comparing students who experienced the new lessons with a control group who experienced the regular lessons. A key to successfully implementing the revised laboratory lessons involved the preparation of teaching assistants [TAs]. TAs had to be comfortable using inquiry as the basis for their teaching as opposed to the more common model of laboratory facilitator. Our model focuses on developing teaching expertise in future faculty as well as current faculty. Interdisciplinary collaboration and peer support have been key factors for our program.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Undergraduates - Students were exposed to five integrated, inquiry based laboratory modules during the twelve week laboratory schedule. Control laboratory sections received the regular laboratory without additional inquiry included. Teaching Assistants - We designed weekly professional development sessions for the TAs to gain an understanding of inquiry teaching as well as general pedagogical skills such as questioning, formative assessments, and classroom management. Faculty - A summer workshop was created to expose faculty and TAs to inquiry based learning. Faculty and TAs from biology and chemistry discussed common themes. Writing time was provided for incorporating inquiry activities into the laboratory modules followed by group discussion for improvements.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Undergraduates - Pre/post assessment was used to assess understanding of concepts related to the improved laboratories. Attitudinal surveys were used to follow student interest. Teaching Assistants - We studied the impact on TA development. Data sources included reflection writings, field notes, classroom videos, and interviews with the TAs.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Undergraduates - Pre/post assessment indicated the students who experienced the new investigations gained a better understanding of some of the concepts, especially those in biology. Attitude surveys documented increases in student interest in the investigations and in biology. Teaching Assistants - Results demonstrate the impact of the sessions on TA growth as inquiry instructors. Initially, the TAs were concerned about their abilities to teach in an active/inquiry style. They also had doubts regarding undergraduates’ abilities to be successful in that learning environment. These barriers were overcome through group discussions and sharing success stories. TAs gained comfort with relinquishing control to their students. Little successes encouraged them to try new strategies, such as classroom assessment techniques. By the end of the semester, most of the TAs embraced an inquiry style and came to believe their students were not only capable of taking ownership for their labs and designing valid investigations, but that their students came to enjoy the experience more than the regular labs. Faculty - The faculty who teach the lecture portion of the classes began questioning the sole use of the lecture format during the classes. Interdisciplinary group discussion focused on ways to inform and support additional faculty to change teaching strategies. Geiser has shifted his research interests and energies to biology education.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Barriers still exist. One of the most formidable is overcoming inertia to change. In the institutional setting, tenure is the driving force and until the institution acknowledges scholarship of learning on par with traditional laboratory research, faculty will not value it as a means to tenure. We need to shift the culture of what constitutes scholarship. Change is slow. Having three science educators within our department provides visibility for what the scholarship of teaching and learning can accomplish. Having biology faculty participate in a journal club and seek support for revising their instruction, and having a graduate course in teaching methods demonstrates a growing commitment for improving undergraduate biology education.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have already presented our findings during the 2012 NARST and NABT conferences. We are finishing our evaluation of data and plan to submit articles describing the curricular change and TA impact in the near future. All five laboratory modules are available for anyone to incorporate into their curriculum. Our interdisciplinary group served as a core to create an education focused biology journal club. The journal club engaged three additional faculty members interested in learning more. While the content of the journal club was valuable, what it did was identify a group of faculty interested in discussing curricular and instructional changes. This created a tipping point for the department because prior to this time many of us were unaware of the others interest in teaching methods and instructional change. Together, we have become a vocal minority for change within the department. As a group we are questioning old assumptions and multiple instructors are now engaging in SoTL projects within their classrooms and trying new techniques to engage the students.

Acknowledgements: NSF Grant. Engaging STEM Students from the Beginning: An Interdependent Approach to Introductory Chemistry and Cellular Biology, DUE - CCLI-Phase 1: Exploratory, Renee Schwartz, PI