Research feature . . .
OHIO STATE AHEAD OF THE CURVE IN UNDERGRADUATE BIOLOGY EDUCATION
by Holly Wagner
Based on the recommendations of a recent National Research Council report, Ohio State University is ahead of the curve in teaching biology to undergraduate students.
That report called on institutions to re-evaluate how they teach biology in order to keep up with the trends in modern biology – something Ohio State has been doing for several years.
The NRC report states that undergraduate biology education hasn’t kept pace with changes in how biologists today really work, that it doesn’t reflect real-world situations.
The gist of that connection is that biology majors need firm grounding in other scientific disciplines, particularly mathematics and the physical sciences. And students need this kind of background in order to tackle and answer increasingly complex questions about modern life.
Long before the NRC report, however, Ohio State was already changing the way it taught biology to undergraduate students, said Steve Rissing, director of the university’s Introductory Biology Program (IBP).
“In many ways the new report is fantastic in that it explains the trends in science education,” he said. “In other ways, the IBP is already doing much of what the report calls for.
“For one, we’re getting away from the cookbook method of teaching concepts in a lab course. Many of the labs are now open-ended and have real experiments that leave room for additional inquiry.”
About five years ago, the College of Biological Sciences decided to begin overhauling its general biology curriculum. First in line for revamping were the biology courses for non-majors.
“We wanted to liberate the non-majors curriculum – it shouldn’t be a brief version of the courses taught to science majors,” said Rissing, who is also a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology. “Both types of students need different things.”
The curriculum for non-majors focuses on the implications of “big picture” issues, such as global climate change, genetically modified foods and conservation and extinction.
“It might be the last time a non-science major ever talks with or interacts with a scientist in the classroom,” Rissing said. “We want a student to finish the course feeling like he could understand science, whether or not he plans on pursuing a career in science.”
The IBP will roll out changes in its majors curriculum beginning winter quarter, Rissing said. For example, he and his colleagues are talking with researchers at Ohio State’s new Mathematical Biosciences Institute about offering special sections of introductory biology courses to undergraduates interested in mathematical biology.
The IBP is already working in tandem with several other entities on campus to experiment with ways to enhance students’ learning. The program has teamed with the College of Education as well as with the university’s Faculty and TA Development (FTAD) and the Technology Enhanced Learning and Research (TELR) programs.
“We’re a research institution, so we should be doing research on what’s effective in teaching,” Rissing said. “We’re teaming up with these colleges and programs to see how the students can benefit.”
Partnering with a variety of campus entities has helped the IBP through curricular changes. For example, FTAD helped prepare IBP graduate teaching assistants for the new teaching regime in the non-majors classes.
“We didn’t want the teaching assistants to give students a broad and shallow overview about the science of biology in 10 weeks,” said Alan Kalish, program director of FTAD. “These graduate students are trained to foster scientific literacy in the students they teach, and to encourage these students to speak and write about some of the major scientific issues out there today.”
Additionally, Rissing requires his students to subscribe to – and read – the New York Times for current news about biology in society.
The prevailing thought is that students will most benefit from seeing the cross-disciplinary nature and relevance of modern science.
To that end, TELR has helped the IBP integrate digital technology – in the form of WebCT – into the classroom. WebCT – short for Web Course Tools – is an online course management system. Instructors can share additional information with their students via WebCT.
More than 26,000 Ohio State students currently use WebCT, the IBP is the largest campus user of the online program, said Steve Acker, director of TELR. Nearly 8,500 students take introductory biology classes each academic year.
“It’s very helpful when those who are in charge of large introductory courses are open to creative instructional trends,” said Acker, who works closely with Rissing in developing web-based content for the IBP program. “Students exposed to innovation early in their academic career tend to later influence faculty to be more aggressive with approaches to teaching.”
The NRC report also takes to task the idea that college-level biology programs often are pigeonholed into teaching students the material needed to fulfill the requirements for the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, Rissing said.
“The American Association of Medical Colleges has a stranglehold on undergraduate biology curriculum,” Rissing said. “Students think that introductory biology courses need to prepare them for the MCAT, and instructors often follow suit. But a minority of the students in our program are interested in attending medical school.
“Many want to become science teachers,” he said. “We’ve got to mentor these students. We don’t want future teachers taught biology in a course that’s based on preparing for the MCAT. If we teach that way, then some day they’re going to teach that way.”
Contact: Steve Rissing, 614-292-9861; Rissing.email@example.com