Teaching old (and new)
dogs new tricks

The benefits from attending an ASBMB
student-centered education symposium

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will host its fourth undergraduate education meeting July 30 through Aug. 2 at Missouri Western State University. Society members might reasonably ask, “How does the ASBMB benefit from sponsoring these meetings?” That is best answered by the title to the 1964 Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which perfectly describes the attitude driving transformations in the field of science education, for which many in the ASBMB have been strong advocates.

Practicing best practices

An-Phong Le of Florida Southern College (left), Sergiy Borysov of the University of South Florida (center) and Jewels Morgan of Georgia State University (right) participate in the Designing Scientific Teaching Tools for BMB Education workshop in Tampa, Fla., in January. The 20 attendees broke into groups. Each developed a broad learning goal, specific learning objectives, expected outcomes and assessment questions, and tools. Later, group presented its work. For a detailed report on the event and its outcomes, visit www.asbmb.org/education/enzymatic. Photo credit: Michael Carastro | University of Tampa

Beginning with the publication of “BIO 2010” and more recently with the release of “Vision and Change,” sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, calls have gone out urging educators to transform the way we disseminate information to undergraduates in our lecture and laboratory courses.

A recent Science magazine report entitled “Lectures aren’t just boring, they are ineffective, too” indicated that the era of the talking-head, 50-minute lecture format, which originated in the Middle Ages, is drawing to a close, replaced by a more student-centered and peer-learning approach to science education.

For our laboratory courses, science-education experts have been urging us to do away with the traditional methods-and-techniques programs and replace them with guided-inquiry, researchlike laboratory experiences, especially at institutions where these lab courses offer the closest thing students may have to a research project.

Not being an expert in the education field, I often find pedagogically focused publications filled with bewildering terminology and methods of statistical analysis that are quite foreign to my more physical-biochemistry-oriented mind. Often these same articles provide ample justification for changing your pedagogical approach without the nuts-and-bolts, how-to information.

Finally, being rather conservative, I initially viewed these calls for transformation at the annual ASBMB education-focused symposia with a great deal of skepticism. After all, I had designed from scratch a biochemistry laboratory course that received rave reviews from students, who often stated it was the best course they had ever taken at our university. How dare anyone suggest that we could design a better course? And several faculty members in my department told me bluntly, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

The problem was that I began to have a nagging feeling that maybe, if it was not exactly broken, our lab course could perhaps be improved dramatically.

Finally, in 2009, I attended the first ASBMB-sponsored small education conference at Colorado College. The primary benefit of this education-focused meeting was that we were able to have meaningful dialogues (which have continued in the ensuing years) with people who actually had carried out such transformations in lecture or laboratory courses, resulting in much greater engagement of their students in the curriculum. It often is difficult to have these kinds of conversations at national meetings due to time constraints.

Another great aspect of attending this small meeting came about when, as part of a workshop headed by a National Science Foundation program director, we wrote proposals describing how we would use funding from that agency to alter one of our courses. This thought-provoking exercise was, for me, the beginning of a major overhaul of our biochemistry laboratory course, which has since gone from a traditional method-and-technique-based course to one in which 60 percent of the semester is devoted to a guided-inquiry, researchlike experience.

Now when students join our class at the beginning of the semester, rather than saying, “You will learn how to do this and that,” we tell them they are joining a long-term research project for which the ultimate objective is to produce site-specific mutations of E. coli alkaline phosphatase. In a similar manner, my whole approach to the biochemistry lecture course that I teach to nonmajors two semesters a year has gone from a traditional 50-minute talking-head model to one in which students interact much more in peer groups solving problems and discussing key concepts.

These changes have not all occurred overnight; rather they have evolved (and continue to evolve) through small, discrete modifications. As in any long journey, you have to take the first step, and a very good step for any new faculty members, postdoctoral students or graduate students who envision themselves teaching undergraduates is to attend the upcoming Transforming Undergraduate Education in the Molecular Life Sciences meeting in July.

I would suggest that established faculty members who are wondering what the pedagogical-transformation ruckus is all about attend as well. Your eyes certainly will be opened to some fantastic new educational concepts. And if you are willing to open your minds to the fact that there just may be a better way to disseminate your course material, you too will get to experience classes that a lot more fun to teach.

James T. Hazzard James T. Hazzard has been course coordinator for an upper-division biochemistry course at the University of Arizona since 2000.