Action plans and best practices
at undergraduate education conference

Conference attendees at the Wyeth Tootle Mansion in St. Joseph for a networking dinner.

Molecular biology and biochemistry educators with a wide variety of viewpoints on best practices for undergraduate education gathered for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology-sponsored special symposium “Transforming undergraduate education in the molecular life sciences.”

The fourth in a biennial conference series that began in 2009, the July 30 to August 2 conference took place at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo. Attendees included faculty representing a range of institutions, graduate students, postdocs, administrators and industry representatives.

Mary Huff, one of the conference organizers, said, “The participants were fully engaged, and that is what made this meeting a success! They created a pulse of excitement that reflected the passion we all share for undergraduate education.”

Action plans were a key element of the three-day conference. Group sessions provided time for participants to develop individualized teaching plans that incorporated strategies and activities from the meeting. Participants also were encouraged to expand their support networks by identifying others who could provide them with advice and expertise.

The conference opened with talks from Jennifer Fretland of Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited and Bruce Horazdvosky of the Mayo Clinic, who spoke about preparing students for careers in industry and the health professions and highlighted academic and soft skill sets students need for successful careers in the sciences. Cheryl Bailey, the dean of natural and health sciences at Mount Mary University and a former program director at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, delivered a keynote on critical issues for preparing students for biomedical and STEM careers.

Methods to promote deeper learning were the focus of a talk by Ellis Bell of the University of San Diego, who described the latest results of the ASBMB’s National Science Foundation grant, in which workshops across the U.S. were used both to identify core biochemistry and molecular biology concepts and to develop assessment tools for undergraduate educators. Jenny Loertscher of Seattle University presented on how students’ understanding of threshold concepts can help prepare them for upper-level BMB content, and Martina Rosenberg of the University of New Mexico discussed how discipline-based educational research is helping to assess learning in BMB students. A number of presenters discussed alternative teaching strategies for use in the classroom including case studies (Annie Prud’homme-Genereux, Quest University); molecular visualization (Tim Herman and Margaret Franzen, Milwaukee School of Engineering); and quantitative biology methods (Johan Paulsson, Harvard University Medical School).

Teaster Baird, Jr. from San Francisco State University leads a group of participants in developing education action plans.

Several presenters focused on effectively integrating research into the curriculum. Todd Eckdahl of Missouri Western State University discussed the use of synthetic biology, Christopher Shaffer of Washington University in St. Louis talked about bioinformatics, and Joe Provost of the University of San Diego offered a presentation on research-based laboratory courses.

Regina Stevens-Truss of Kalamazoo College led a workshop on the ASBMB’s Hands-On Opportunities to Promote Engagement in Sciences, or HOPES program, which fosters outreach partnerships between BMB researchers and K – 12 teachers in their local communities. And Angela Klaus of Seton Hall University focused on National Science Foundation funding opportunities for primarily undergraduate institutions, while Susan Renoe of the University of Missouri focused on using broader impacts to transform undergraduate education.

Informal networking is a key element of the symposium series, and additional activities like an ASBMB Student Chapters luncheon helped facilitate more formal networking among faculty from the same regions of the country.

A memorable and unique interactive theater presentation from the Chapel Hill, N.C., group “Theater Delta” was a conference highlight. Performers took on ethical dilemmas facing undergraduate and graduate students and faculty research advisors including cheating, plagiarism and unauthorized collaboration. Following each scene, the audience got a chance to quiz the characters about their situations and motivations.

Post-conference surveys revealed 97.7 percent of attendees achieved their conference learning goals and would recommend this conference in the future. Participants were pleased to learn active strategies for the classroom and happy with the conference’s emphasis on open dialogue and action plans.

Conference organizers included Quinn Vega of Montclair State University, Mary Huff of Bellarmine University and Ben Caldwell of Missouri Western State University, who are all regional directors of the ASBMB Student Chapters program. The contributions of the entire ASBMB Student Chapters Steering Committee were essential to the planning and success of this meeting.

Ben Caldwell Ben Caldwell is a professor of chemistry and dean of the Graduate School at Missouri Western State University. He also is a regional director of the ASBMB Student Chapters program.
Mary Huff Mary Huff is an associate professor of biology and assistant dean of Bellarmine University’s College of Arts and Sciences in Louisville, KY. She is also a regional director of the ASBMB Student Chapters program.
Quinn Vega Quinn Vega is a professor and chairman of the department of Biology at Montclair State University. He is also a regional director of the ASBMB Student Chapters program.