February 2011

Accreditation 2011 – turning the corner

The ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee is exploring the possibility of offering accreditation for bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology.

 

Perhaps the biggest challenge to be faced by the pilot program will be the design of an assessment instrument. The sheer number of students to be evaluated renders the use of a standard examination virtually inevitable.

Background: to accredit, or not to accredit?

Biochemistry, molecular biology, and the combination of both biochemistry and molecular biology (hereafter referred to as biochemistry and molecular biology or BMB) have emerged as the majors of choice for large numbers of scientifically oriented college and university students across North America. On many campuses, enrollment in undergraduate BMB degree programs approaches or exceeds that of the well-established, centuries-old disciplines of mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. This transformation from a fairly specialized subject pursued by a small cadre of aspiring faculty members and physicians into a widely recognized and heavily subscribed college major suggests the question, What role should the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology play in promoting and supporting high quality bachelor’s degree programs in BMB? If we are and wish to remain the preeminent professional society in biochemistry and molecular biology, shouldn’t we be as active in promoting high quality undergraduate education in our core discipline as we are in other areas, such as research?

Whenever our members find themselves discussing how ASBMB might act to promote the improvement and growth of high quality undergraduate education in BMB, the same question eventually arises: Why doesn’t ASBMB accredit bachelor's degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology? Despite persistent misgivings regarding the feasibility of implementation, its logical simplicity and directness, along with the precedents offered by several other disciplines, render the question impossible to ignore.

What’s in it for us?

An accreditation program for bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology constitutes a powerful vehicle by which the ASBMB can
* actively and visibly promote excellence and innovation in undergraduate BMB education,
* connect with and recruit aspiring young biochemists and molecular biologists on a nation-wide scale, and
* raise the profile and relevance of our society with BMB educators as well as professionals working in the commercial/industrial sector who often are frustrated with the heterogeneity in knowledge and skills exhibited by BMB majors emerging from different programs.

Receipt of an accredited degree will certify for prospective graduate schools or employers that the degree recipient in question has a) matriculated through a program whose curriculum and infrastructure meet the expectations of ASBMB and b) performed at a level competitive with his or her peers across the nation. Students graduating from lesser-known schools will be able to demonstrate their competitiveness with alumni of well-known programs. The prescription of minimum infrastructure and curriculum requirements by ASBMB will provide program faculty members with a lever to use in negotiations with administrators for personnel and other resources.

For the past three years, the members of the Education and Professional Development Committee, the regional directors of the Undergraduate Affiliates Network, and the members of the ASBMB council have engaged in vigorous discussions regarding the potential benefits, form and cost of an ASBMB-sponsored accreditation program for bachelor’s degrees in BMB. As is typical for so many things of this magnitude, many aspects were found to cut both ways. The wide reach that renders accreditation so attractive is inexorably linked to the logistical problems of working with hundreds of programs and many thousands of graduates.

Where do we go from here?

Much remains to be determined, tested and modified. However, with the help of grants from the National Science Foundation and the Teagle Foundation, we are ready to move beyond discussion to piloting a prospective model for the accreditation process. If this empirical venture proves productive, we should be in a position to phase in a full, national degree accreditation program during the next few years.

ASBMB Receives Teagle Grant

The Teagle Foundation has awarded $40,000 to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to construct and pilot a concept-based exam suitable for assessing the core knowledge and fundamental skills of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology. Development of this assessment instrument is a direct outgrowth of the 2008 white paper, “Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and Liberal Education,” published by ASBMB and funded by Teagle. The long-term goal of this pilot project is to establish the experience and expertise necessary to construct and verify an assessment instrument suitable for use in the outcomes-based accreditation of bachelor’s degree programs in biochemistry and molecular biology and certification of the performance of individual students.

The two principal investigators on the grant are Peter J. Kennelly, chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee and professor of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Adele J. Wolfson, professor of chemistry at Wellesley College.

The pilot accreditation model is designed to emphasize outcomes over form. To receive an ASBMB-certified degree, each student must graduate from an ASBMB-accredited program and exhibit a satisfactory performance on ASBMB’s assessment instrument. Students whose performance is deemed outstanding will be recognized as graduating with distinction. No attempt will be made to specify a sequence of required courses. On the other hand, the requirement of a substantive experiential learning component and support for undergraduate research reflects the high priority placed by our society on these components of BMB education.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to be faced by the pilot program will be the design of an assessment instrument. The sheer number of students to be evaluated renders the use of a standard examination virtually inevitable. Ideally, such an exam should require students to display well-developed analytical and quantitative reasoning skills and to utilize several core defining concepts in biochemistry and molecular biology to synthesize their answers. Our goal is to incorporate this into an exam that is composed of roughly 10 questions answerable within a typical class period of one hour. While it should prove challenging to come up with a set of 10 questions each year that collectively possess the requisite range and balance, this approach will greatly deflate the value of rote memorization and render it difficult to teach to the test. Detailed rubrics will be provided to guide scoring by faculty members from participating institutions.

A community effort

Our proposed model for degree certification and program accreditation is unique in its reliance on community participation, its flexible approach to required curricula and its abandonment of the traditional omnibus multiple-choice examination. The next several months should determine whether assessment of student performance can be accomplished using a relatively small set of high value questions. If so, we should find ourselves poised to move forward as a society to play a more active and assertive role in shaping college-level science, technology, math and engineering education in general and BMB in particular.

J. Ellis Bell (jbell2@richmond.edu) is a professor of chemistry and chair of the biochemistry and molecular biology program at the University of Richmond. Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.


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