Engaging Undergraduates, Current and Future Faculty

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Title of Abstract: Engaging Undergraduates, Current and Future Faculty

Name of Author: Sue Wick
Author Company or Institution: University of Minnesota--Twin Cities
Author Title: Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Faculty Development
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: active learning future faculty research

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The goals of the College of Biological Sciences project to promote the Vision and Change initiative at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities have been several-pronged: to have undergraduates actively engage with biology (“do biology, not just read about it”), to encourage current faculty to experience active learning so they can begin to use these strategies in their courses, and to help train the next generation of faculty to embrace effective active learning strategies. About a dozen instructors have offered the Foundations of Biology two-semester series of active learning courses for majors in the biological sciences for about 2800 students over the past six years. More recently about six faculty, staff and postdoctoral instructors have developed modules that bring authentic biology research into non-majors biology courses for a few thousand more students. One aim of bringing authentic research into non-majors courses is to help students understand how scientific inquiry and interpretation of results is done; another aim is to increase the level of interest in science in general.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The majors courses are in active learning classrooms. Teams of nine students explore introductory biology topics through daily, weekly, and term-long activities that require higher level cognitive skills of analysis, application, evaluation and synthesis. Students experience authentic research in the second semester, working on a faculty member’s research project. Strategies for bringing authentic biology research into non-majors biology courses include a microbial metagenomics lab module in general biology; activities on sexual reproduction in bean beetles in a course on the biology and evolution of sex; and student analysis of animal photos from the Serengeti, part of a study of animal associations and migration, incorporated into an evolution and ecology course. These activities replace other lab exercises and are tested first on a small scale so they can be refined before widespread incorporation. Many faculty cite lack of suitable classrooms for active learning and difficulty imagining how active learning looks and sounds in action. We address these stumbling blocks by advertising our open door policy; as a result we have welcomed hundreds of visitors to our classes, including teams of faculty, architects and administrators from institutions poised to commit to instructional changes. Faculty from elsewhere on campus have also observed and consulted with us about how to transform their science lecture courses into ones that incorporate more engaged student learning. We also organized a program in which graduate students and postdocs learn practices of evidence-informed teaching. We met one evening a month for a year, beginning with discussions of diversity, active learning and assessment. The class divided into small groups to produce short active learning modules on topics like nutrient cycles, HPV vaccination, plasmid construction and deciphering genetic pathways. Groups presented their work to the rest of the class for feedback and refinement.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: To examine the effect of our reformed majors’ sequence, we are monitoring course alumni success in upper division coursework, in research laboratories, and in national summer research programs. We also collect surveys on students’ impressions of course effectiveness in increasing their confidence and knowledge of how science works. We are still at early stages of incorporating authentic research into non-majors courses, but plan to collect data from course surveys on whether students’ enthusiasm for science and understanding of scientific process have increased. Evaluation of our effect on other faculty is more informal, but includes assessing their willingness to participate in an intensive summer institute experience to learn more about effective active learning. To evaluate the graduate student and postdoc program on scientific teaching, we focused on the products developed. One module has been tested for its effectiveness in a freshman seminar and others have been tested on groups of undergraduate volunteers.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Our preliminary assessment of the effect of reforms to majors’ coursework indicates increases in students’ problem-solving skills and in their confidence to tackle new questions. While some students continue to resist this style of instruction, surveys indicate that many realize they are learning how to learn deeply and retain both information and skills for the future. Majors who go on to summer research programs indicated that they are very well prepared relative to other applicants, even those from elite institutions. Impacts on local faculty also are somewhat promising. Additional instructors, some of whom were initially skeptical about moving away from a familiar lecture format, have joined the ranks of the initial core faculty, and some sections of upper division courses are now also taught in active learning classrooms. Participants in the scientific teaching training program for graduate students and postdocs were positive about their experience learning teaching skills that many institutions will find desirable, and we anticipate that several of them will start developing their teaching approach from a habit of active learning instead of lecturing. An added benefit of the program is that there are now more active learning materials available for insertion into various undergraduate courses for non-majors and majors.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: We encountered no unexpected challenges.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Members of our active learning team have made numerous poster and oral conference presentations and given seminars on our various efforts to transform undergraduate education. We have a small assortment of publications on our pedagogical work and continue to collect data about the effectiveness of our programs with the intent to produce more publications.

Acknowledgements: Faculty, teaching postdoctoral fellows and instructional staff who have contributed to our programs to reform undergraduate education include: Robin Wright, David Matthes, Mark Decker, Robert Brooker, Deena Wassenberg, Brian Gibbens, Cheryl Scott, Sehoya Cotner, Sadie Hebert, Jane Phillips, Anna Strain, Craig Packer, Annika Moe