Aligning Introductory Biology Curricula to Vision and Change

Return to search results | New search

Title of Abstract: Aligning Introductory Biology Curricula to Vision and Change

Name of Author: David Koetje
Author Company or Institution: Calvin College
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses, General Biology, Integrative Biology
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: A mixture of the above, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: Introductory biology curriculum, Contemporary societal challenges, Engaging research, Systems thinking, Student-centered learning

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Amy Wilstermann, Calvin College Herbert Fynewever, Calvin College

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: In 2009 Calvin College’s Biology Department reformed its introductory curriculum to better align with the goals of Vision and Change. Indeed, the principle objective of Living Systems, the first course in our new curriculum, is to introduce students to biological core concepts and to begin the process of core competency development. In this course, students encounter biological knowledge and skills in the context of contemporary societal challenges including biodiversity and climate change; food, fuel, nutrition, and sustainability; and public health and personalized medicine. While engaging these issues, students consider the connectedness of living systems, the complexity of societal challenges, and the need for integrative approaches to resolve them. Approximately 200 students have enrolled in this course each year; two-thirds of whom are biology majors that enroll in subsequent courses in the new curriculum. Our second course (Cellular and Genetic Systems) and third course (Ecological and Evolutionary Systems) focus on how living systems function simultaneously at different spatial and temporal scales. An NSF TUES grant is funding reforms in the laboratory component of these courses, designing multi-week modules that use core competencies and concepts to address compelling research questions related to issues explored in Living Systems. We are focusing on competencies pertaining to methodologies (e.g., quantitation involving standard curves) and scientific communication (e.g., graphical interpretation and inferences from data). To date, nearly 100 students have participated in revised laboratory investigations. Our new introductory curriculum culminates in a Research Design and Methodology course involving extended research projects that address ecological and human health problems associated with Plaster Creek, a highly impacted local stream. This course gives students opportunities to integrate concepts from biology and other STEM disciplines.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Change does not happen all at once. To nurture an environment conducive to reform, we employed a highly collaborative long-term process of faculty and curriculum development focused on learner-centered, scientific teaching. Motivated by the realization that our old curriculum and pedagogies did not align well with new understandings of how people learn, we sought to blend practices based on constructivist and cognitivist learning theories. Early innovators were encouraged to identify and pilot learner-centered pedagogies and assessment options through literature reviews and conference participation. As faculty discussed insights and concerns about these pilot efforts in departmental colloquia, a clearer vision emerged. And so began a growing local movement for educational reforms aligning with Vision and Change. In our Living Systems course, we provide opportunities for students to actively engage core concepts through problem-based, inquiry-driven, collaborative explorations based on relevant societal challenges. These investigations are designed to not only expand biological knowledge, but also facilitate the development of communication and collaboration skills, and enable students to recognize their roles as change agents in the world. The Research Design and Methodology course requires students to apply the knowledge and skills gained in preceding courses to address challenges associated with a polluted local watershed. With funding from the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network (GLISTEN, and in collaboration with community partner organizations, student teams conduct research on various projects including stream bank erosion and restoration, coliform bacteria and sediment loads, and invasive exotic species. Beyond providing valuable learning opportunities for students, these projects have enhanced community efforts to monitor and implement actions in its watershed management plan.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Direct and indirect assessments have enabled us to evaluate gains in students’ conceptual knowledge as well as gains in competencies and metacognition. Pre- and post-assessments show that significant gains are achieved in the mastery of biological concepts and the resolution of common misconceptions. The Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) tool has been used to evaluate student attitudes about biology and perceptions of their own learning.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Results indicate that students appreciate the emphasis on societal issues, problem-solving, interconnections with other disciplines, and development of collaborative learning skills. They feel that they learn a great deal about biological concepts, despite that fact that we have de-emphasized ‘coverage’. On SALG surveys, about two-thirds of our students report good to great gains in their interest in discussing biology-related issues with friends or family. Impacts among biology department faculty on our campus include exposure to and practice of novel course development, course implementation, and pedagogical strategies. A particularly valuable component of our approach has been the inclusion of students in the course development process. Students participated in the selection of course content and in the preparation of classroom activities. Another feature of our course development and implementation strategy has been the formation of collaborative instructor teams. These teams have facilitated discussions that have guided course revisions and provided avenues to share best practices. As faculty join an instructor team, they have opportunity to acquire a new toolkit of active learning pedagogies from experienced colleagues. These faculty development gains can then be used to affect change in courses throughout the curriculum. Our reform efforts have also had impacts beyond our department. The NSF-funded laboratory revision project is led by an interdisciplinary team. This team of seven faculty representing biology, chemistry, and mathematics, has organized faculty development workshops for colleagues (60 participants) across the science division that have prompted greater collaboration among faculty that teach at the introductory level. Our curriculum revisions have also provided opportunities to share Vision and Change goals, and curriculum development and implementation strategies at national conferences.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: First-year students tend to approach learning of biology concepts by focusing on bold-face words in their textbook. They have little experience thinking things through or understanding the complex dynamic behaviors of biological systems. To resolve this problem, we added a short module to the beginning of our Living Systems course that introduces students to systems thinking and provides opportunities to practice approaching complex problems using systems methods. We also found that many students with prior experience working in groups had not gained the skills necessary to do so effectively. To address this problem, we added several activities to the beginning of our Living Systems course that introduce students to collaboration strategies and promote effective communication, productivity, and conflict resolution.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: To date we have presented elements of our curricular reforms at regional and national meetings (including SENCER meetings, Next Generation STEM Learning Conference, and TUES PI Conference). SENCER is now featuring Living Systems as a model course: Our NSF TUES project includes dissemination plans involving publication of manuscripts, dissemination of lab materials via peer-reviewed databases, and presentations in faculty development workshops.

Acknowledgements: Elements of our project are funded by NSF TUES grant #DUE-1140767.