Visual Analytics in Biology Curriculum Network

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Title of Abstract: Visual Analytics in Biology Curriculum Network

Name of Author: Raphael Isokpehi
Author Company or Institution: Jackson State University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Bioinformatics, Biotechnology, Evolutionary Biology, General Biology
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Adding to the literature on how people learn, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: Visual Analytics, Data-Rich Biology, Teaching with Data, Data Visualization

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Shaneka S. Simmons, Jackson State Universtiy Jian Chen, University of Maryland, Baltimore County Edu Suarez-Martine, University of Puerto Rico at Ponce Robert Dottin, Hunter College of the City University of New York

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Biology of the 21st Century (the New Biology) already generates massive amounts of data on biological systems from cellular molecules to ecosystems. It demands new skills and knowledge for teachers and learners of biology to make biological inferences from large datasets (such as genome sequences and long-term ecological measurements) that are now essential for evidence-based learning. The primary mission of the Visual Analytics in Biology Curriculum Network (VABCN; is to contribute to the national efforts to change the way the core concepts for biology literacy and practice are taught and learned. According to the Final Report of the July 2009 National Conference titled “VISION AND CHANGE IN UNDERGRADUATE BIOLOGY EDUCATION: A CALL TO ACTION”, the core concepts for biological literacy and practice are (i) evolution; (ii) structure and function; (iii) information flow, exchange, and storage; and (iv) systems. To transform undergraduate biology education these concepts need to be mastered using a set of core competencies. Incorporating visual analytics, the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces, in the biology curriculum will improve the ability of biology learners to develop competencies to understand (master) the core concepts for biological literacy. The overall goal of the Visual Analytics in Biology Curriculum Network (VABCN) is to facilitate and promote the collaboration of researchers, educators, and students who are developing approaches for incorporating visual analytics into biology undergraduate education. The intended outcomes of the VABCN are to (1) Develop and expand a network of scholars for improvement in undergraduate biology education; (2) Produce, assess and disseminate course resources designed to improve biological literacy; (3) Promote a globally engaged network of faculty and students; and (4) Provide effective communications and collaboration tools.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Many interactive visual interfaces that are key to teaching, learning and assessment are now available through diverse computing devices including desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones. The three main strategies for implementing the Visual Analytics in Biology Curriculum Network (VABCN) are: (1) Web Portal to Visual Analytics for Undergraduate Biology Education; (2) Development of Visual Analytics Enhanced Biology Course Resources; and (3) Webinars and Classroom Guest Speakers. A visual analytics enhanced biology course resource incorporates the use of interactive visual interfaces and software that facilitate visual analytics tasks on the selected biological datasets. The course resources will be mapped to the categories that are aligned to the core concepts and core competencies as described in the 2011 Vision and Change Report. Other categories are student audience, scientific domain and nature of research.

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 planning phase (April 2011 to March 2012) of the VABCN enabled us to develop frameworks for the design of evaluation studies: e.g. pre- and post-assessment materials; comparisons between implementations at different sites; and comparative assessments of course resource implementation with and without the visual analytic component. Additional frameworks are students’ pre and post knowledge and skills in different aspects of scientific inquiry. The proposed project will allow members to further develop these assessment strategies and share them.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The Preparing Faculty Working Group (Theme III: Ways to Bring About Change: Change Agents) during the 2009 Vision and Change meeting recognized the need “To develop and grow communities of scholars (students, postdocs, faculty, and administrators) who are committed to creating, using, assessing, and disseminating effective practices in teaching and learning” ( The planning phase of the VABCN enabled the formation of a Steering Committee consisting of 33 scholars from 13 diverse institutions. The full implementation of the VABCN will provide activities to improve and expand a network of scholars interested in improving the approaches to teaching and learning biology in a data intensive world. Our measurable aim is to reach at least 100 unique participants per year in the VABCN activities. Integrated analysis and visualization can allow learners and teachers of biology to analyze data of interest, display relevant parts, and concurrent ways to interact with the data for deeper understanding. Science education research suggests that activities are most effective when they are designed to interactively engage students.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: In the planning (incubator) phase of the VABCN we identified that heterogeneous virtual communities take time to develop the bonds, sharing of expertise, shared understanding and vocabulary needed for productive development of visual analytic course materials. More time than a year is needed to develop at once solid collaborative dynamics, high quality instructional materials integrating innovative visual analytics, implementation of the materials, and assessment instruments. It is likely that investment in these longer start-up times for a first module will make it possible for a group to produce additional instructional materials very efficiently and effectively. Thus efforts are in progress to secure grant funding and other funding sources to continue the activities of the VABCN.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The principal product from the network activities will be a system of course resources on visual analytics for mastering core concepts for biological literacy. The VABCN will facilitate the production, assessment and dissemination of biology course resources that incorporate visual analytics. During the planning phase, members of the network produced, assessed and disseminated prototype course resources on diversity of life targeted at biology courses offered to freshmen and sophomores ( We will promote, encourage and support the use of best practices for student-centered course resource development as recommended by the Vision and Change Report. Therefore, an expected outcome of this VABCN activity is that the developed course resources will have well-articulated learning outcomes to align assessments with learning activities. As an international network with participants in different geographical locations, the VABCN will maximize the use of cyber-based collaboration strategies and promote the use of videoconferencing to accomplish collaborations. As part of our international public dissemination of the results of the planning activities of the VABCN, we have worked with International Innovation Magazine to prepare an article on the importance of visual analytics in biology curriculum in language accessible to the public. The full digital edition of the May 2012 International Innovation can be found at: Since the VABCN is responsive to the Vision and Change effort, we will establish a VABCN group on the PULSE (Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education) website ( In particular, we will provide VABCN information materials to the PULSE Vision and Change Ambassadors, a group dedicated to meeting with biology and life science departments to encourage them to adopt the principles and recommendations of the “Vision and Change” report.

Acknowledgements: The incubator phase of the Visual Analytics in Biology Curriculum Network was jointly funded by the Directorate for Biological Sciences, Division of Biological Infrastructure and the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Undergraduate Education of the National Science Foundation as part of their Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education efforts. Award: NSF-DBI-1062057