Systems Biology and Computer Modeling Across the Curriculum

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Title of Abstract: Systems Biology and Computer Modeling Across the Curriculum

Name of Author: Pamela Pape-Lindstrom
Author Company or Institution: Everett Community College
Author Title: Dept. Co-Chair
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Ecology and Environmental Biology, General Biology, Integrative Biology, Organismal Biology
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Material Development, Systems Biology and Computer Modeling & Simulation
Keywords: Systems Biology Computer Modeling Sustainability non-STEM majors Introductory biology

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The 2011 report, “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action”, has established core concepts and competencies relevant to future life sciences education. “Living systems are interconnected and interacting” has been identified as a core concept and “The ability to use modeling and simulation” has been established as a core competency. At Everett Community College, goals for our undergraduate majors include investigating biological content with a systems perspective and providing computer modeling and simulation classroom experiences which help students understand that biological systems are interactive, dynamic and complex. Systems thinking and modeling has been included in the biology majors’ courses for several years. An additional goal is to enhance the curriculum by providing similar opportunities for non-science majors. Recently, a new “Sustainability and Systems” course has been introduced for non-majors to reinforce a systems biology perspective and provide opportunities for students to develop competency in modeling and simulation for the first time, regardless of their major. This new course is available to any student across the institution and focuses on analysis of the sustainability of human systems. Simple models of population growth and more advanced ecological case studies are explored with tools such as connection circles, and causal loop diagrams, including reinforcing (positive feedback) loops and balancing (negative feedback) loops. Students also explore the effects of time delays upon systems and identify leverage points which enhance ecological sustainability.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Students in both the majors and non-majors courses utilize STELLA software at an introductory level via construction of prescribed models, manipulation of existing models and creation of their own models. In the biology majors series, concepts explored with modeling and simulation include plant transpiration, photosynthesis, cardiovascular function and hormones & homeostasis. Evidence that students deepen their comprehension of these concepts and increase their understanding of the usefulness of these curricular approaches has been collected via short surveys for biology majors. Formal assessment of student learning gains regarding systems-thinking and gains in competency with simulation in the non-majors course is currently underway.

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 Colorado Learning Attitudes About Science Survey (CLASS) instrument for biology was used to assess the STEM majors. The survey was designed, tested, and validated for measuring “novice-to-expert-like perceptions about biology” and was developed specifically to “measure whether curricular and pedagogical changes in the classroom are succeeding in both improving student learning and transitioning students toward more expert-like thinking.” It employs multiple-choice questions with a 5-point, Likert-type response range, focusing on understanding biology, opinions about biology, and behaviors relative to the practice of biology. Students’ responses are scored based on how closely they follow the responses of experts in the field. Analysis of the pre & post CLASS data from the first quarter majors series indicated that there was a positive trend for students to move toward a 'more-expert like' perspective, but the data was not statistically significant due to small sample size. To evaluate STEM majors' perceptions of the usefulness of mathematics and modeling in understanding biology, and relevance towards their anticipated biological careers a 5 question survey was administered. A statistically significant number of students switched their choice to ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ when comparing pre- vs. post-tests in response to questions such as “Understanding how to use STELLA and/or other modeling programs will be useful in my scientific career”. After instruction in Year 2, 73% ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement, “I can use STELLA to explore biological concepts at a beginning level” Also, 53% ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement “Using STELLA helps me to understand biological concepts more in depth.” These results occurred after spending approximately 11 hours of instruction (out of a course total of 70) on STELLA modules in either lecture or lab. Evaluation of the non-STEM majors responses is ongoing.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The STEM majors curricular change began in 2007 in response to 'Bio 2010'. Approximately 165 students successfully complete the majors series each year, therefore about 1000 STEM students have engaged with the systems biology and computer modeling curriculum from inception to present. The new non-majors Sustainability & Systems course (began Fall 2012) enrolls approximately 18 students in each of the two quarters it is offered. This course offers computer modeling experience and a systems perspective to students that might not otherwise encounter these approaches in their curriculum. Confirmation that this curricular change is becoming institutionalized at Everett Community College is evident in the 2012 adoption of a Student Core Learning Outcome regarding sustainability, which in part emphasizes some aspects of systems biology. The institution-wide learning outcome is stated here: “Identify elements of a sustainable society: Students will integrate and apply economic, ecological, and eco-justice concepts into a systems-thinking framework.”

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Historically, the first course in the majors’ biology sequence was comprised of STEM majors and pre-allied health students. This presented an initial barrier to curricular change, as there are differing math requirements for these student populations. Some of the majors’ modeling exercises are more mathematically focused. Resistant faculty members were eventually persuaded that changing the curriculum structure (separate courses for STEM majors vs. non-majors) would benefit both student populations. In addition, this transformation was accomplished by initially having two of the majors’ courses (of the three quarter series) team taught, which allowed instructors to become familiar with this new pedagogical approach.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The STEM majors project was presented in poster format at the NSF sponsored 'Broadening Impact Conference' in 2011 and at the 'Introductory Biology Project Conference' in 2012. Interactive workshops with participants utilizing STELLA software and curricular modules were conducted at a NW BIO conference for community college instructors and for high school math and science teachers at a 'Strength in Numbers' conference at Everett Community College in 2011. An initial project description is available at Additional dissemination of the Sustainability & Systems work is planned at upcoming NW BIO conferences.

Acknowledgements: I thank Dr. Fayla Schwartz for assistance with developing some curricular materials. Funding for portions of this work was provided by NSF-CCLI, Award # 0737487.