$2.3M NSF grant to transform life sciences teaching

$2.3M NSF grant to transform life sciences teaching

Students work on a biology lab assignment in UNL's Brace Hall. UNL faculty Tomas Helikar and Joseph Dauer have received funding from the National Science Foundation to reshape life sciences teaching to meet modern day needs.
Craig Chandler | University Communications
Students work on a biology lab assignment in UNL's Brace Hall. UNL faculty Tomas Helikar and Joseph Dauer have received funding from the National Science Foundation to reshape life sciences teaching to meet modern day needs.

Learning the life sciences in the 21st century and beyond is about much more than memorizing information for a test and then moving on to the next subject. Students must learn in a more dynamic environment that ties the threads of science together into a whole from the start of their undergraduate experience, say UNL professors leading an effort to develop new teaching methods that meet these demands.

The project is funded by a four-year, $2,321,012 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Currently, life sciences teaching works like this, said Joe Dauer, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources: “You start cramming as much knowledge as you can into a student’s head their freshman year, in pieces, and you hope students over time figure out how to connect things.”

Tomas Helikar, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and principal investigator for the grant, said the new approach will be in contrast to “the way I learned — rote memorization from textbooks, static pictures, and so on. We need to be more dynamic.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that over half of the 30 fastest growing careers in this nation require familiarity with the life sciences, a discipline that is rapidly shifting to a more systems-level, large database driven approach to understanding ourselves and the world we live in.

The UNL initiative brings together life sciences educators and computational biologists to develop innovative methods to meet the challenges posed by this new approach within the life sciences.

Currently, it isn’t until they’re upperclassman and graduate- students are immersed in this advanced thinking. “We want students connecting those pieces earlier,” Dauer said.

Life sciences students will be much more challenged from the start of their college experience. Some will find that more engaging and fun, but Dauer said he expects some resistance too.

“Students have this expectation they’re going to be told what’s on the exam and what they need to memorize and if they do that, they’re going to get an A,” he said.

“The U.S. is realizing that as life sciences have evolved as a research field, education also needs to change the way we teach,” Helikar added.

“This project has the potential to significantly transform the learning of biology by providing a complete learning environment that enables students to learn by constructing, simulating, analyzing, and interrogating the dynamic and systems properties of living organisms,” the project team said in its summary.

The proposal was developed in response to “Vision and Change: a Call to Action in Undergraduate Biology Education,” a document produced by The American Association for the Advancement of Science, based on the findings of a large number of biologists. That document emphasizes the importance of systems thinking, learning about the dynamics of biology, and integration of computer simulations into undergraduate biology education.

Dauer and Helikar said they expect by the end of the grant’s four years, Life Sciences 120 and 121 will be taught very differently. Less “stand and deliver” by lecturers in auditoriums, and a more fluid classroom, with groups working together and more interaction between instructors and students. Labs for these classes also will be taught differently, with more simulations and immersion into systems thinking.

Helikar said the project will produce web-based modules that can be adapted for use in universities across the country.

It will use the Cell Collective, a web-based computer simulation platform developed in Helikar’s lab that has been successfully used in computational biology research, as a tool for learning about complex biological processes in a broad set of university life sciences courses. The technology has been successfully piloted as an educational tool in immunology and microbiology courses and has been included as part of an inquiry-based cancer biology textbook.

The educational research planned in this grant aims to extend this platform, and develop a comprehensive and easily accessible learning environment that will provide university students and instructors with computer models and learning content for topics taught in both introductory and specialized biology courses. It will enable students to learn about the dynamics of living systems in real-time through interactive simulations, while providing instant feedback with simulation and assessment results.

In addition, the web-based nature of the resource will enable students and their teachers to participate in learning activities on both a local and global scale.

Developed resources will be made available to researchers and teachers interested in incorporating this approach into their own learning technologies and methodologies. A design-based research and development approach is being used to learn about how student conceptual change can be supported by this intervention. Data from the students' conceptual models and biology evaluation assessment and from exploratory interviews aimed at perceptions of difficulty, language barriers, and areas of greater clarification will be analyzed to refine the software technology.

This project is funded jointly by the Directorate for Biological Sciences and the Directorate of Education and Human Resources, Division of Undergraduate Education in support of efforts to address the challenges posed in Vision and Change in Undergraduate Education: A Call to Action http://visionandchange.org/finalreport/

The NSF grant is No. DUE-1432001.