Monthly Archives: December 2014

Biology Education Research Group (BERG) at the University of Washington – Seattle, an example of a Local Community of Practice

The Biology Education Research Group (BERG) at University of Washington (UW) is an example of a local community of practice (COP); see “Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain … groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2006).

In 2009, BERG grew out of a desire to establish a regular conversation for faculty and others interested in biology education and provide opportunities for discussing the DBER (Discipline Based Education Research), SOTL (Scholarship of Teaching & Learning) and cognitive science literature, as well as sharing expertise and problem solving. We encourage the formation of other, similar local and regional COPs to promote, encourage and sustain research on biology teaching and learning and implementation of evidence-based teaching and learning.

BERG was founded by faculty at the UW and has expanded to include participation of postdocs and graduate students and other regional university and college faculty. BERG meetings are held weekly during the academic year.  Importantly, BERG encourages participation of undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and these members have now become an integral and essential part of the group. BERG goals include the creation of new methods for teaching Biology, production of research based teaching methods, development of testable hypotheses concerning student learning in Biology, creation of guidelines for conducting rigorous biology education research, providing a forum for discussion of effective teaching methods and fostering a diverse network to facilitate research collaborations.

  •  Please share information about and links to other local and regional groups in this blog discussion.
  • Share your questions about creating a local community of practice.

Some advice for starting a local community of practice:

  • Have explicit, shared values.
  • Use a “collaborative bottom-up approach” Kajiura (2014).
  • Practice “diffuse authority” Kajiura (2014) but there needs to be one person who can send weekly reminders and encourage different members to lead weekly discussions.
  • Create and maintain “community spaces” Kajiura (2014). Use a web-site to house papers, calendar, participants, COP description and other information & resources.
  • Have a list-serve so participants can easily email each other.
  • Post meetings times, locations and topics (and/or presenters) at the beginning of the term/semester.

Things to avoid

  • Don’t rely on a single individual to organize, present or provide expertise.
  • Don’t compete with departmental seminars and critical meetings.
  • Don’t spam your list-serve.
  • Don’t intimidate: disagree without being disagreeable and be patient with DBER & SOTL novices (sometimes these are the senior faculty and sometimes they are students).
  • Don’t be exclusive in your participants or your readings.
    • If you set up a COP for faculty and postdocs don’t exclude graduate students or undergraduate researchers from this group.
    • A biology education journal club should be open to literature from cognitive science, physics education and other relevant disciplines.

Kajiura, L., Smit, J., Montpetit, C., Kelly, T., Waugh, J., Rawle, F., Clark, J., Neumann, M., and French, M. 2014. Knowledge mobilization across boundaries with the use of novel organizational structures, conferencing strategies, and technological tools: The Ontario Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators (oCUBE) Model. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching. Volume 7, No. 1.  Available from:

Wenger, E. Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction. 2006 [cited 2014 November 25]; Available from:





Mary Pat Wenderoth is a Principal Lecturer in the Biology Department at the University of Washington (UW) where she teaches animal physiology courses and conducts biology education research on how students learn biology. She received the UW Distinguished Teaching Award in 2001and has served as the co-director of the UW Teaching Academy. She is a co-founder of the UW Biology Education Research Group (UW BERG) and the national Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER). She has served as a facilitator at the HHMI Summer Institute for Undergraduate Biology Education since 2007 and co-led the Northwest Regional Summer Institutes from 2011 to 2013. Mary Pat earned her B.S. in Biology from the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., a M.S. in Women’s Studies from George Washington University, a M.S. in Exercise Physiology from Purdue University and her Ph.D. in Physiology from Rush University in Chicago.





Jenny L. McFarland is tenured faculty and former department chair in the Biology Department at the Edmonds Community College (EdCC) where she teaches human anatomy & physiology and introductory biology courses and conducts biology education research on student learning or core concepts in physiology. She received the EdCC Echelbarger-Sherman Exceptional Faculty Award in 2013. She is a PULSE (Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education) Leadership Fellow (selected 2012). As a PULSE fellow and a steering committee member on several NSF-funded projects, she advocates for excellence in undergraduate physiology, biology and STEM education at 2-year and 4-year institutions. She has served as a facilitator for the NW PULSE workshops to transform life science departments in the Pacific Northwest. Jenny earned her B.S. in Aeronautics & Astronautics Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her Ph.D. in Physiology & Biophysics and Physiological Psychology from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Introducing Students to the Flipped Classroom
  1. Introducing Students to the Flipped Classroom
  2. Are you ready to flip your classroom?

laptop personActive learning is an effective teaching approach but limits class time needed to present content especially in biomedical science courses. Students in this digital age are drawn to digital modes of learning more so than assigned printed text reading. YouTube’s success is clear evidence of this, but given the vast array of available resources, the reliability and application of this information presents a new challenge. Educators either guide students in seeking effective information or provide directed audiovisual resources appropriate for their course content. With advances in technology, deciphering lectures has become easier. All of these elements have led to the Flipped Classroom, a new teaching approach. A few years ago, it seemed like educators were learning the definition of the Flipped Classroom, but today, those same educators are engaged in discovering how to adapt this method of teaching into their own coursework.

The Flipped Classroom approach allows instructors to offer more time in the classroom to work on difficult concepts by moving some of the basic concepts out of the class period.   Students must learn these concepts prior to the face-to-face class. This gives ample time in class to devote to more complex concepts and to engage students in active learning whether it be problem solving in teams or a variety of assessments.

However, this new teaching approach may pose new challenges for students and educators alike. For those students not accustomed to preparing ahead for class Flipped Classroom may require modifications in their study habits and schedules. When I first applied the Flipped Classroom approach in my classroom last year, my students were initially surprised and reluctant.  Gradually, however, the number of students watching the Flipped videos prior to class increased and students quickly became accustomed to the habit of preparing in advance and participating in the in-class learning exercises.  End-of-year evaluations indicated that two-thirds of the class had changed the way they studied for this class.  Now in the midst of its second year in my classroom, the Flipped Classroom has become a vital part of my students’ education.  As awareness of this teaching modality has increased, students now express great interest in this teaching style and report high satisfaction with the videos and in-class exercises. As more and more educators utilize this methodology, I have no doubt that students will embrace this learning style along with their traditional lectures and readings to further augment their learning experience.

In the era of easy lecture-recording, many educators struggle with diminishing classroom attendance.  Although designed to help students review lectures for clarification or exam preparation, lecture recording often encourages students to watch lectures from home at their own pace, thereby leading to poor class attendance and less student-teacher interaction. In this way, the Flipped Classroom methodology aims to eliminate this problem by reinventing the classroom experience as one of furthering content, brainstorming and problem-solving via interaction among peers and instructors.

New educators need to be exposed to novel teaching methodologies such as the Flipped Classroom and need to be given resources and training to help them not only to become better teachers but also to inspire students and ignite their quest for knowledge.







Chaya Gopalan earned her PhD in Medical Physiology from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Besides teaching Introductory and Advanced Physiology courses at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, she is interested in the impact of newer modalities in teaching and their effect on student performance. She is also involved in the study of the role of gonadal steroids on sexual differentiation of the brain.