Innovations in Using Digital Approaches to Teach biology

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Title of Abstract: Innovations in Using Digital Approaches to Teach biology

Name of Author: Graham Walker
Author Company or Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Author Title: Amer. Cancer Society Prof./HHMI Prof.
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Biotechnology, Cell Biology, General Biology, Genetics
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: genetics, biochemistry, cell biology, software, on-line

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Department of Biology plays an integral role in undergraduate education at MIT. Introductory Biology is a required course for MIT students. Furthermore, so many other science and engineering departments are currently studying biological systems and materials that non-majors now outnumber biology majors in our core biology courses. To improve the effectiveness of our teaching to this large interdisciplinary set of students, we have followed a multi-year, multi-faceted strategy that embodies many of the key principles laid out in the Vision and Change report. This work has led to the Biology Department’s current effort to engage the passion of our faculty and students, both on campus and around the world, by exploiting the potential of digital approaches to improve learning through innovative uses of technology and technology-enabled pedagogies. Most recently, we have concentrated on improving conceptual understanding and student engagement in the learning process. To this end, we performed a comprehensive analysis of the concepts taught in our various Introductory Biology versions, which resulted in their organization into a hierarchical, cross-referenced framework (Khodor et al., Cell Biol. Educ. 2004). In turn, this focused our attention on core concepts that are difficult for students to understand and led us to explore innovative strategies for inquiry-based learning. This effort led to a collaboration between the MIT-HHMI Education Group and MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology that resulted in the development and implementation of freely available, internationally used visualization and simulation software programs and accompanying curricula: StarBiochem (, StarGenetics ( and StarCellBio.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: StarBiochem is a molecular 3-D visualizer designed specifically for education to enable the visualization and manipulation of any Protein Data Bank structure. In addition, StarBiochem includes examples of macromolecules and their subunits to aid in their identification. Through StarBiochem, students discover structure-function relationships through exploratory and guided activities. Usage of protein 3-D viewers has been shown to increase student’s understanding of protein structure and function, one of the core concepts for biological literacy in the Vision and Change report. StarGenetics is a customizable genetics virtual laboratory that simulates the inheritance of Mendelian and non-Mendelian traits. In StarGenetics, students perform crosses with model organisms, such as Mendel’s peas, fruit flies, and yeast, as well as non-model organisms such as cows. The goal of StarGenetics is to enhance procedural knowledge by allowing students to design and conduct their own genetic experiments, one of the core competencies in the Vision and Change report. StarGenetics is used extensively in MIT’s undergraduate Genetics course (7.03). StarCellBio is a cell and molecular biology experiment simulator that uses simulated and real data to provide realistic experimental results. During its first funding year, we developed a StarCellBio prototype, enhanced its usability and functionality, and began implementing an assessment plan. StarCellBio was used for the first time in MIT’s Cell Biology course (7.06) this past spring. Our OpenCourseWare Scholar Course ‘Fundamentals of Biology’ (, a non-interactive online course for self-study, helped prepared us for the development of online courses. This past spring, the Biology Department’s first MITx course, 7.00x, a freely available on-line introductory biology course was taught by Professor Eric Lander.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Self-reported student data within MIT’s introductory biology courses indicates that StarBiochem increase student’s understanding of protein structure and function, one of the core concepts for biological literacy in the Vision and Change report. In survey results, 7.03 students indicated that StarGenetics problems were more effective than traditional problems in teaching genetics experimental design and analysis. Evaluation of the effectiveness of StarCellBio is in progress.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Support of the STAR tools within MIT courses has allowed the Biology Department to more easily extend the adoption of our tools nationally through curriculum development and outreach workshops. In turn, this has led to recognition of our work by outside funding agencies: Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Institutional grant to MIT and Professorship grant to G.C.W.), Davis Educational Foundation, and NSF (TUES grant). This outside support has greatly facilitated our efforts and, in turn, has stimulated further institutional recognition and support within MIT. Recently, we expanded outreach internationally. Through the MIT-Haiti Initiative, we have led workshops in Haiti for Haitian faculty on the use of innovative biology tools to enhance student understanding of core biology concepts. Translation of the tools’ user interfaces and associated curricula into Haitian Creole has opened the door to the translation of these programs into other languages, which will make these tools more accessible internationally.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Many technical challenges were overcome.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: StarBiochem and StarGenetics are already freely available. 7.00x was freely available on-line, as will be future MITx courses.

Acknowledgements: This work was supported by HHMI, the Davis Educational Foundation, and NSF 1122616.