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Why biology education is important

October 13, 2012
By Jim Tate - SMSU , Marshall Independent

Southwest Minnesota State University biology professor Dr. Betsy Desy has been named one of 40 Vision and Change Leadership Fellows by the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE).

The fellows will identify and consider how to eliminate barriers to the changes that are needed to improve undergraduate life sciences education.

The PULSE program is a joint initiative of the National Science Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health. The effort supports a year-long program in which Vision and Change Leadership Fellows consider and then recommend models for improving undergraduate life sciences education.

Desy is one of 40 selected from 250 applicants. The fellows are from 24 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands and are employed by research universities, liberal arts colleges, comprehensive/regional universities and two-year colleges.

The 40 will meet at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland Oct. 15-18 to launch the initiative. Input from faculty members from across the country will be encouraged, and a website set up to take input regarding "strategies that have worked on other campuses that focus on biology education for all students," said Desy. "From all of these stories we will put together models that faculty at any institution can look at. From that input, faculty members can say, 'I can implement that on my campus.'"

The 40 will reconvene in June for another four days to look at the suggestions and develop a final draft.

The effort to improve the teaching of life sciences goes back to 2006, said Desy, to a national meeting of 200 faculty members to discuss how better to prepare all students in biology, not just biology majors. That culminated in a 2009 meeting, where several hundred faculty put together and published a "call-to-action" document which spelled out a vision for change in undergraduate biology education.

Desy is confident the group can help make a difference. "We will hopefully make undergraduate biology education more engaging and better prepare students to address the challenges of the 21st century," said Desy. "The idea is to be flexible; no one size fits all. We're looking for several workable models. A flexible model can be implemented at a university and then customized."

The group will encourage input from other faculty members across the country, "so that information is available about who is doing what, and there will be networking sources available."

Desy said the whole idea of revisiting biology education "has been going on for 25 years now - how to make it more engaging, and showing all students why biology is important to their lives. We know things now about student learning we didn't know before.

"I'm excited to see this tackled," said Desy. "Most science faculty are not trained in pedagogy. We teach the way we were taught. This endeavor gives a slightly different perspective. I know it has caused me to be more reflective and purposeful in how I approach classes."

The expression "less is more" can apply to biology course content, said Desy.

"Less content results in deeper learning by students," she said. "When they are engaged, it deepens their knowledge. We also have to be better at communicating, not just with biologists but the general public, and show them how important biology is to their lives."

Students, too, bear responsibility for their college success, she said.

"Students need to understand they are not receptacles for knowledge, they must make an effort in learning and thinking and engaging. They are not empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge. They have to work at being knowledgeable; they have a responsibility for their own education," she said.



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