The leap from two-year
to four-year institutions

Building bridges in molecular life science education

Published January 01 2018

Valarie Olmo of George Mason University explains her research to Traci Addy of Yale University during the poster session/reception of the molecular life sciences symposium at the University of Tampa.courtesy of L. michael carastro

Many students begin their undergraduate careers at community colleges, later transferring to four-year institutions, and science educators face a range of issues posed by these transitions. In the 2013-14 academic year, 46 percent of students who completed a degree at a four-year institution had been enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the previous 10 years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and in 14 states, more than half of four-year degree recipients previously were enrolled at a two-year institution.

During a biennial symposium, “Transforming Undergraduate Education in the Molecular Life Sciences,” sponsored by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a diverse group of faculty, graduate students and postdocs addressed these and other issues. One panel discussion, “Bridging Community College to Four-Year College/University Transitions,” included Jessica Schrader of Eastern Florida State College, James Wysong of Hillsborough Community College and Ellis Bell of the University of San Diego. The panel educators and administrators identified and explored transition issues in undergraduate bioscience education.

Challenges for these transfer students include the clustering of science classes in the latter half of a four-year degree. Many students who start at two-year colleges already have taken all, or most, of their general education courses. After transferring as science majors into four-year schools, however, they must take a daunting number of science classes in their last two years. Also, courses at two-year schools such as general or organic chemistry might not cover the same breadth and depth of material as the same courses at some four-year schools, which can result in these students being underprepared for subsequent science classes, such as biochemistry. In addition, whatever their majors, some students experience a type of cultural shock after transferring into a four-year school.


Organizers surveyed participants after the symposium in Tampa. Responses were anonymous and comments included the following:

“This is a great meeting! The community is very welcoming and kind to new attendees. The meeting also provides a lot of valuable information for improving education.”

“I felt it offered great ideas of teaching styles. I told my sister who is a high school chemistry teacher she needs to attend in 2019!”

“Great meeting that is focused on undergraduate education for BMB fields. I haven’t found anything else like it and look forward to attending the next one.”

“Very informative. I learned different teaching techniques I was not aware of and how to possibly reach students that can be difficult to reach.”

These issues must be addressed by increasing coordination and collaboration among educators and administrators at both two-year and four-year institutions to develop effective strategies and mechanisms. This goal initially must be approached through meaningful dialogue, such as that in the panel discussion at our ASBMB-sponsored symposium. Ideas voiced during our panel discussion included increased coordination between two-year and four-year institutional academic advisers serving students in molecular life sciences to address the issue of clustering classes in the last two years; collaborations among faculty involved in science courses to ensure content is more consistent at the different types of institutions; and helping provide students at two-year institutions with research opportunities at four-year schools prior to their transferring so these students are not expected to begin and complete their (sometimes requisite) research projects in a compressed time frame.

More topics

The four-day symposium, held in July at the University of Tampa, was the fifth iteration of “Transforming Undergraduate Education in the Molecular Life Sciences.” These symposia focus on cutting-edge, high-impact teaching practices and strategies in molecular life science. These themes were woven into three meeting foci:

Classroom Undergraduate Research Experiences, or CUREs — Expert speakers presented a session on implementation of CURES and promoting and developing CURE faculty networks.

Early Career Faculty and Postdoctoral Fellows Teaching Development — Programs that have evidence-based records of good teaching practices were presented to encourage and prepare young scientists to consider becoming educators.

Student Chapters and Science Outreach Programs — Informal sessions focused on undergraduate outreach programs and the work of ASBMB Student Chapters to help build communities of science educators and science students who work to solve community problems.

The symposium attendees came from two-year community colleges, primarily undergraduate institutions and large research universities. Nearly one-fifth were graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or community college faculty.

The organizers decided early in the planning that postdocs and grad students should be included. This group typically does not receive training for a career in science education. In fact, there is a paucity of resources and opportunities for grad students and postdocs in molecular life sciences to gain experience in educating undergraduates. This symposium was designed to provide a career-changing opportunity to these young science educators. More than $30,000 in National Science Foundation funding helped pay for travel, lodging and registration for grad students, postdocs and local two-year college faculty.

Speakers and workshop presenters came from academia, government and the biotechnology industry, providing a range of perspectives. In addition to the discussion of transitions from two-year to four-year institutions, the symposium included an interactive workshop presented by Sherri Andrews of Bio-Rad, “The Student Lionfish Project: Facilitating Student Understanding of Methods and Data,” designed to teach students the principles and utility of Sanger sequencing. Joseph Provost of the University of San Diego and Michael Pikaart of Hope College presented “CUREs: Building Communities to Support and Sustain Protein Biochemistry Research in the Teaching Laboratory.”

To continue the conversations that began at the symposium and help implement change in attendees’ careers, the organizers offered individual action plans and the development of mentor-mentee relationships. Those who expressed interest were encouraged to pair up and form a plan to continue their mentor-mentee relationship, including regular conference calls, site visits and sharing teaching experiences.

Undergraduate education in the molecular life sciences depends on our community working to develop future educators in the field as well as addressing the issues surrounding student transitions from community colleges into four-year educational institutions. Special symposia such as this one are a first step toward meeting these goals.

L. Michael Carastro Jr. L. Michael Carastro Jr. is an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Tampa.

Jim Lawrence Jim Lawrence is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Regina Stevens-Truss Regina Stevens-Truss is a professor of chemistry at Kalamazoo College.

Ellis Bell Ellis Bellis a research associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of San Diego.