Answering the Challenge for Better Biology Education
By Jenny Maloney
Picture a college dorm room. There are two cramped desks, each against a wall without a window. Seated at either desk are two undergraduate roommates staring blankly at large textbooks. They stopped reading the words about half an hour earlier and are now thumbing through the graphs and pictures, hoping to glean some information for the test tomorrow. One is a biology major, the other one is majoring in English. Neither student truly understands today’s study of biology.
Enter Dr. Lisa Hines, associate professor of biology at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), whose goal is to determine what will enable undergraduates like these two gain the skill sets and experiences that scientific study can provide.
Hines is working to answer the challenge leveled at science educators by the 2009 Vision and Change Report. According to the Vision and Change: A Call to Action summary for 2009: “On July 15‐ 17, 2009, more than 500 biology faculty from two‐ and four‐year colleges and universities, researchers, administrators, students and other stakeholders in the future of undergraduate biology education met in Washington, DC. ... The conference set out to mobilize the nation’s educators to ensure that the undergraduate biology they teach in their classrooms reflects the biology they practice in their labs and in the field. The conference also developed recommendations to ensure that all students – biology majors and those majoring in other fields – gain a better understanding of the nature of science and the natural world.”
In other words, Hines and her colleagues are working to ensure the classroom experience is reflective of real‐ world science. Biology cannot be learned via textbooks. Field research, new technologies, critical thinking, and creativity all play a part in how biologists work. The classroom should reflect that for all undergraduates, not just science majors.
Hines’s interest in making biology education more comprehensive and complete goes right to the heart of how she herself likes to work. “After I graduated college, I obtained a fabulous job with a biotech company. It was great for the first few years, but I eventually got bored. I realized that I wanted to be involved with the decision‐ making process, rather than just generating the data. When I was in graduate school, I became more involved with different research projects, and I really enjoyed the challenge and creativity of research.” She wants to share that passion for research with all students in a way that will keep them active and engaged.
“We all share a common goal of improving the quality of biology education”
“I became involved with the introductory biology series about five years ago,” said Hines. “At that time, I realized that the emphasis of introductory biology courses was on covering the details on a wide span of topics, as reflected by the large textbooks. However, this is not really reflective of what scientists do, or what makes science exciting.”
This is a national call‐to‐action, as stated by Dr. Bruce Alberts, the former Editor for Science magazine, “The exploration of the wonderful world of living things should be a fascinating delight for students. But in California, as in so many other parts of the United States and the world, most students gain no sense of the excitement and power of science, because we adults have somehow let science education be reduced to the memorization of ‘science key terms.’”
Before implementing changes to the biology classroom, however, Hines is answering the questions surrounding the recommendations presented by scientists and educators like Alberts and the Vision and Change conference, which makes her research a little different. “Technically, the traditional format [of an undergraduate biology classroom] is hands‐on, but it is very cookbook. It doesn’t resemble what scientists really do in the lab. The type of transformation that we did is called a ‘CURE,’” Hines explained. Answering the Challenge for Better Biology Education By Jenny Maloney “We all share a common goal of improving the quality of biology education”
Earlier research into implementing classroom undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) hasn’t been applied to everyday, undergraduate classrooms. Hines has partnered with the biology faculty members Tom Wolkow and Lisa Durrenberger of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and four Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC) faculty members: Bob Henderson, Lisa Hollis‐Brown, Melissa Lema, and Anne Montgomery – who were directly involved with implementation in the classroom – hoping to figure out whether or not changing classroom methodology will actually work.
She explained, “Data supporting this recommendation are limited to selective undergraduate settings, such as upper level or honors courses, and the benefits are ill‐defined due to methodological limitations. We are evaluating whether this approach is truly feasible and beneficial in the large introductory level course at a public, four‐year institution [UCCS] and a community college [PPCC].”
For the research, Hines and her colleagues randomly assigned lab sections to either the traditional format or the experimental format containing the newly developed research experience. “We utilized assessments to evaluate both learning gains and perception and compared responses between the different formats.”
Hines and colleague Tom Wolkow received funding from the National Science Foundation to conduct this research. They have submitted another proposal to NSF that involves a new collaboration with UCCSTeach, which would expand their current project to four local high schools.
Hines and Wolkow were invited to the second Vision and Change conference in 2013 to share their findings. The focus of the second conference was to address what has happened – successes, as well as barriers – since the recommendations were published as a result of the first conference. “We all share a common goal of improving the quality of biology education.” A goal that will continue for the foreseeable future.
Science education wasn’t always Hines’s focus. “When I began my academic career, I was not involved with education research. I am an epidemiologist by training, and my research focus was in the area of breast cancer. Although I still do breast cancer research, I am now involved in education research through this project.” She continues, “I opted to pursue a career in academia because I’m passionate about both research and teaching. It was fortuitous that I had the opportunity to merge these two areas.”
Having had the opportunity to work with influential and highly acclaimed scientists, Hines has learned “To always step back and assess the bigger picture. It is very easy to get lost in the weeds of a project.” This perspective motivates Hines to work on improving science education. The classroom is where the scientists of the future will find their interests and their passions, which makes each classroom a vital part of the future of scientific advances.
You can read more about Lisa hines at her website.