Vision and Change-ing the Biology Major

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Title of Abstract: Vision and Change-ing the Biology Major

Name of Author: Gail Begley
Author Company or Institution: Northeastern University
Author Title: Teaching Faculty & PreHealth Program Director
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: First-year Competencies Core Concepts Interdisciplinary

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The core concepts and disciplinary practices articulated in Vision & Change: a call to action (V & C), have been used to drive curricular reform from the classroom to the department level. The major recommendations of V & C as well as the AAMC/HHMI report, Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians are being used as guiding principles in an effort to re-envision the undergraduate Biology experience. We are looking to move to a more competency-based and inquiry-rich program that emphasizes interdisciplinary connections and the important applications of mathematics in biology, while maximizing flexibility for students who might want to move among the related majors of Biology, Behavioral Neuroscience, Marine Biology, and Biochemistry (> 1200 majors).

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: We offer one-semester seminar-style Inquiries courses for majors in the Biological Sciences who have AP credit for Principles of Biology. These classes are relatively small (<40 students), emphasize the current literature, and focus on student-centered learning. We are piloting an expanded Inquiries model for students without AP credit and exploring the possibility of providing this course for all first-year majors. One section of Inquiries has been redesigned around the V & C core concepts (“Big Ideas in Biology” or BIBs) and disciplinary practices (“Skills Used by Biologists” or SUBs). Formative assessment included in-class and homework assignments requiring BIBs and SUBs analysis of readings, class discussion topics, Service-Learning, and research projects. Following the success of this model, the Biology Department curriculum committee presented a streamlined description of the concepts and disciplinary practices to the full faculty and proposed accepting them formally as our curricular goals. We are also working to improve the math experience for Biology majors. All of our students take Calculus for the Life Sciences, a course that was developed and is being improved through interdepartmental collaboration between Biology and Mathematics. Only Behavioral Neuroscience majors take an additional statistics course offered through the Psychology Department. A new course in the application of experimental design and statistics to biological problems will be required of all first-year students in the Biology major this fall. The course was designed and will be taught by colleagues in Marine & Environmental Science, but will include medical as well as ecological applications. We have also worked with Chemistry colleagues to increase the focus on biologically relevant concepts and applications and to think about ways that we might be able to restructure the Chemistry course sequence to allow Biology majors to take Biochemistry in their fourth semester.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: This past fall we began surveying all first-year biology students to learn more about how well their high school experience prepared them for first-year biology and what they are taking away from their introductory biology course. Conducting this survey relatively early in the semester gave faculty an opportunity to adjust their approaches where necessary to maximize learning outcomes. We have also started to survey our Biology Capstone students (mostly seniors) to assess their perception of exposure to and mastery of V & C competencies. This exercise, which is very preliminary, points to our co-operative education program, research in faculty labs, and several key courses as the most important contributors to student’s perceptions of competency development.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The faculty voted to adopt the V & C concepts and practices as our curriculum goals and we held a summer retreat on undergraduate education that included a workshop on how to incorporate the goals into individual courses. We have posted the goals on our website and there has been more discussion among faculty about teaching and learning than ever before. The first-year Inquiries faculty group meets before, during, and after the fall semester to coordinate collaborative projects, share best practices, and discuss improvements. The curriculum committee has opened an interdisciplinary dialogue with several other departments in the College. This has deepened our understanding of teaching in the various disciplines and brought energy and diversity to the reform process. At the classroom level, when asked about the most important thing they had learned and would remember, first-year Inquiries students overwhelmingly reported learning major biological concepts, such as evolution, and disciplinary skills, such as using the primary literature, rather than facts or examples.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The biology curriculum committee has dedicated a great deal of time to this effort, so faculty need to be willing to take on additional work to affect change. Traditional department boundaries and the procedures required for curricular change have complicated efforts to achieve interdisciplinary integration. However we have found discussions with colleagues from other departments to be very fruitful. A shared sense of responsibility to students and a willingness on the part of the initiating department to assess its own curriculum are key to making progress. In our discussions of a possible move to an Inquiries model for all Biology majors we have run up against two challenges. The first is resourcing; in order to keep the class size small, more faculty are needed to teach first-year Biology and the teaching load is skewed towards the fall semester. The second challenge is differing faculty opinions on whether all of the majors would be able to handle the Inquiries course and whether or not it would give them enough of a foundation to move into the intermediate courses. We are making progress towards providing our students with a rich and biologically relevant grounding in mathematics, but we still need to be sure that students are using the math that they have learned in meaningful ways in other courses and in their experiential learning.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: A description of the process for structuring a course around the core concepts and disciplinary practices has been published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education ( and a workshop was developed and delivered to Biology faculty based on this model. The curriculum committee has continued to look holistically at the undergraduate curriculum and is moving forward with efforts to provide more small class, active-learning experiences to students, to better integrate the physical sciences and mathematics, and to explore ways to improve research integration across the curriculum. Our overarching goal is to help our students think like biologists. We plan to continue assessing progress towards that goal based on V & C concepts and skills developed by senior year and use that information to identify strengths and weaknesses in the program.

Acknowledgements: Thanks are owed to the Biology Curriculum Committee for working for change, to committee chair Kostia Bergman for critical reading of this submission and for leading change, and to colleagues in Chemistry & Chemical Biology, Marine & Environmental Science, and Mathematics for being partners in change.