When Vision & Change: A Call to Action was published and distributed, University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Biology department (like many other departments across the country) answered the call. The rubrics for Vision and Change gave people a means to evaluate one’s department and how student instruction occurred. This led to great discussions on what needed to be remodeled within our courses and curriculum. This was good. The previous UAA Introductory Biology course had a 20% withdrawal rate and (by estimates only) an additional 20% of students who would not succeed in the course (D or F grade). If we wanted to increase retention in the major and increase the diversity of people pursuing a biological sciences undergraduate education, something needed to be done.
I want to take this opportunity to spend a bit of time on our process; not simply because I am excited about the positive changes that are happening at our biology department, but to share our brief story in hopes to hear from others.
The problem – UAA had a 2 semester introductory biology (survey based) course that had, in some instances, 40% reduction of students for each semester.
Our solution – Create a 1 semester laboratory/experiential learning introductory biology course (Principles and Methods of Biology; BIOL A108) that is founded on the principles laid forth in Vision and Change.
What does this really look like, other than a lot of work?
The basic flow is to have 3, 5-week (10 sessions) modules within the semester, which focus on three core concepts: evolution, information flow, and structure and function. These modules are tied together by principles of the scientific method and student led experiments. Each module has a different content lead instructor. The unifying instruction is led by a lab coordinator that follows the theme of scientific method to ensure students are practicing and utilizing each part of the scientific method throughout the duration of the course.
- Module 1 focuses heavily on observation, creating and testing hypotheses, finding and using credible sources, and creating basic graphs for communication purposes.
- Module 2 continues to build on observation, creating and testing hypotheses, creating graphs, and adds the component of applying the collected data into a greater context using credible sources.
- Module 3 takes the components of modules 1 and 2 and asks the students to interpret their data using credible sources.
These modules culminate at the end of the course by having the students present a hypothetical experiment based on a current biologically relevant observation.
This course set up requires a large amount of group work and coordination among the students. We encourage discussions through specific assignment prompts and ask the students to present their data (6 times) as a group (they switch group members for each module). Presentations are assessed on flow of information, clarity of information, and accuracy of information. We include concept quizzes (3 per module), but no high stakes exams. There are a series of assignments that are formative to allow instructor feedback to be incorporated into summative assignments (presentations and experimental write ups).
Is it working? – We’ve tracked these changes with pre/post tests and student retention rates. Initial data show 96% of students passed (defined as a C or better grade) with a withdrawal rate of 2% in the first semester (Fall 2015). Data from the current semester (Spring 2016) suggest a similar trend. A second goal of the program revision was to increase student learning and engagement about the process of the scientific method; in this our data suggest we were successful. Within one month of BIOL A108, students have improved their use of the scientific method to tackle challenging biological questions and core concepts. Preliminary assessment data show 96% of BIOL A108 students can create and use hypothesis statements correctly. Additionally, BIOL A108 student pre/post data indicate a 25% improvement in their comprehension of Mendel’s principles.
These changes have required a lot of work by many people; including learners from all levels. Transparent communication between instructors and students have been paramount to our initial success. This communication includes informing the students that the changes within the course structure are based on discipline based educational research and is founded by using current data from evidence-based teaching to shape the course.
Additional data that we are collecting include student demographics and end of semester student perception surveys. I hope to gather information regarding how this course is perceived by students and their personal successes as scientists. Why would we care about our student demographics? Anchorage, Alaska has three high schools in the top ten diversity ranking of high schools. A majority of our students enrolled in UAA’s biological science degree program are from the Anchorage and greater Alaska area. Collectively, if we want to increase the diversity of people trained in the biological sciences; UAA’s biological sciences program is one place to start. Maybe our course redesign will help others with their curricular transformations.
I am really interested in learning about how other departments and programs have remodeled their courses following the guidelines of Vision and Change, and what outcomes they are tracking. Let’s share ideas and materials within the LifeSciTRC and PECOP resources!
Aguirre, K. M., Balser, T. C., Jack, T., Marley, K. E., Miller, K. G., Osgood, M. P., & Romano, S. L. (2013). PULSE Vision & Change Rubrics. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 579-581.
Brewer, C. A., & Smith, D. (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.
Brownell, S. E., & Kloser, M. J. (2015). Toward a conceptual framework for measuring the effectiveness of course-based undergraduate research experiences in undergraduate biology. Studies in Higher Education, 40(3), 525-544.
Farrell, Chad R. (2016). “The Anchorage Mosaic: Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Urban North.” Forthcoming chapter in Imagining Anchorage: The Making of America’s Northernmost Metropolis, edited by James K. Barnett and Ian C. Hartman. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press
Rachel Hannah is an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at University of Alaska, Anchorage. Helping people become scientifically literate citizens has become her major career focus as a science educator. As a classroom and outreach educator, Rachel works to help people explore science so they can apply and evaluate scientific information to determine its impact on one’s daily life. She is trained as a Neurophysiologist and her graduate degree is in Anatomy and Neurobiology from the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Recently, Rachel’s research interests have migrated to science education and how students build critical thinking skills.