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Davidson Garners Top National Rating in Biology Education

Connor Kirkpatrick
Connor Kirkpatrick '16 is conducting research in genome editing this summer with Assistant Prof. Rachid El Bejjani.

Biology educators across the nation are recognizing the need to emphasize scientific reasoning and the ability to think critically, rather than asking students to master a litany of facts. A recent report highlights Davidson College as a model program in this reform initiative. Experts from the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE) studied eight biology departments across the country in a pilot program to certify progress toward more effective teaching and learning. Davidson earned the PULSE team's top score.

PULSE is a collaborative effort developed and funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Formed in 2012, PULSE is dedicated to mobilizing biologists to implement recommendations in a 2011 report titled Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. That report was the result of recommendations that arose from a national conference of more than 500 educators in 2009.

Yolanda George, deputy director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, lauded PULSE as instrumental in promoting the new Vision and Change paradigm. Its recommendations include giving new prominence to laboratory work, learning to analyze large data sets, retooling to shift from lecture-centered to learner-centered courses and prompting students to design their own experiments to answer questions they generate.

As one of its first initiatives, PULSE invited biology departments nationwide to apply to participate in a pilot certification program. Davidson was among 70 departments that applied and one of just eight accepted for evaluation. The certification process required a great deal of time and effort from the host institutions, including an extensive application, a self-study and a site visit.

Top Progression Level

The PULSE team assigned a "progression level" of zero to four to each biology department it examined. Davidson was the only one of the eight to achieve a level of three, describing its biology department as "accomplished." Six institutions earned a two, and one institution earned a one. No institutions in the pilot accreditation program were rated at level four.

PULSE's executive summary concluded, "Overall, Davidson offers an outstanding biology education. The biology faculty members are passionate about student learning, energetic in their offerings and approaches, and generous with their time and wisdom. Faculty members are committed to curricular innovation and student success. Impressively, we observed a consistently high level of student engagement in all of the classrooms we visited. Much of what is going on at Davidson can serve as a national model of biology education based on the principles of Vision and Change."

Biology is the college's fourth most popular major, averaging almost 50 graduates per year out of a total of 450. Roughly a third of its graduates enroll in medical school, a third earn graduate degrees, and a third enter a wide variety of other career paths. The department emphasizes original research by its 18 faculty members, who regularly involve students in their research programs.

Those research opportunities are made possible in large part by success in attracting external support. In the past 15 years faculty members have earned more than $16.5 million from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Rapidly Changing Field

Biology at Davidson aspires to continue its leadership as a forward-oriented department. As called for in Vision and Change, the department is committed to offering up-to-date courses across the breadth of the life sciences, using innovative pedagogies, engaging in research that generates new understanding, and partnering effectively with other disciplines.

Several Davidson professors attended the Vision and Change conference, including Prof. Chris Paradise. He commented that Davidson's PULSE rating was the result of a variety of independent initiatives called for in Vision and Change. "Most of our faculty members have found a unique niche way to advance the Vision and Change goals," he said.

Davidson's Vice President for Academic Affairs and Prof. of Biology Wendy Raymond pointed out that the department has, "intentionally and thoughtfully developed a culture of student-centered pedagogy that focuses on integrating research, transdisciplinary problem-solving, active classroom learning, and scientific responsibility throughout the curriculum. We are pleased and grateful that the PULSE pilot certification process has both encouraged and acknowledged their accomplishments."

Prof. Mark Barsoum
Assistant Prof. Mark Barsoum directs the “RISE” summer program, which is designed to prompt minority and first generation students to consider careers in science.

Vision and Change in Practice

Barbara Lom, biology department chair, agreed that Davidson has for many years embraced a culture tuned to Vision and Change. "Rather than just marching through a textbook from cover to cover, our professors do things like write their own textbooks, encourage students to read original research articles, fuse lecture and lab sessions, significantly involve students in research and take case study approaches."

Lom also credited former department chair Verna Case with establishing this student-centered culture at Davidson. Lom said, "Many years ago Verna articulated a goal of making Davidson one of the best undergraduate liberal arts college biology departments in the country. She recruited talented faculty members and encouraged research and innovative teaching. Now we have evidence from PULSE that we are achieving her goal."

Other examples of professors using innovative teaching methods include Assistant Professors Rachid El Bejjani and Kevin Smith. El Bejjani directed students in his neuroscience class to produce their assignments in the form of a research proposal. Exploring topics such as the molecular mechanism of learning and memory in rodents, El Bejjani encouraged his students to develop a hypothesis surrounding a question in the field and design experiments to test that hypothesis. At the conclusion of the course students created posters describing their projects and presented their work to their classmates, then to the entire college community at a poster fair.

Smith has adopted a pedagogy known as CREATE (consider, read, elucidate the hypothesis, think of the new experiment) in teaching a biodiversity course. "It is taught almost exclusively from real scientific papers that I present to them without title or abstract," he said. "That way, the students don't know what the results of the study are, and that's critical. They have to think as if they are the researchers doing the work."

Smith frequently assigns papers that address contemporary and controversial topics. One paper asks if biodiversity in an area affects the incidence of Lyme disease. Another asks if it is necessary to fence huge national parks in Africa to conserve lion populations. In the final part of the exercise, Smith directs the students to suggest and design a new study that logically follows their research results.

A Textbook of Their Own

Another demonstration of innovative educational effectiveness is an electronic introductory biology textbook published last year by biology faculty members Malcolm Campbell and Chris Paradise with math professor Laurie Heyer. Introductory biology classes frequently employ a massive, encyclopedic textbook. But their Integrating Concepts in Biology e-textbook leads students to gain an understanding of five "big ideas" that permeate all of biology, from molecules to ecosystems: information, evolution, cells, emergent properties and homeostasis. In addition, the book addresses each of those five big ideas at five levels of organization: molecules, cells, organisms, populations and ecological systems.

Heyer said, "The e-books demonstrate a dedication to new and better ways of teaching, and that's what we do at Davidson." The PULSE Fellows report agreed, stating that the e-textbook, "...offers a highly innovative introductory biology sequence with integration of concepts in a new approach that may be just what the authors of Vision and Change had in mind."

Laurie Heyer, Malcolm Campbell and Chris Paradise
(l-r) Math Prof. Laurie Heyer and biology professors Malcolm Campbell and Chris Paradise published an electronic textbook last year that addresses many recommendations of “Vision and Change.”

Chair Barbara Lom noted that the PULSE results provide Davidson's biology department with a much better idea of how their efforts measure up to the ambitious goals of Vision and Change. She reported, "This certification process provided our department with important opportunities to reflect on our individual and collective pedagogical goals, consider our curriculum, assess our outcomes, chart our progress and gain new perspectives. We now have a much clearer sense of aspects where our department excels, as well as aspects where we need to improve."

Campus Support Vital

Lom also pointed out that the curricular evolution toward Vision and Change would not be possible without significant college support. That support takes many forms, from use of the library's Studio D classroom with its moveable furniture and technology that facilitate teamwork, to construction of a new science building with labs adjacent to classrooms. Lom added, "We also have the staff and funds to equip us with the latest technology and talented staff members to set up labs, help develop new lab experiences, and keep instruments working. We are fortunate to have strong support here."

PULSE anticipates that its new certification program will provide incentives and rewards for departments to move toward program transformation called for in Vision and Change. Likewise, the certification program may yield an official accreditation program for biology similar to those offered in some other disciplines.

The Vision and Change report concludes, "The time has come for all biology faculty, particularly those who teach undergraduates, to develop a coordinated and sustainable plan for implementing sound principles of teaching and learning to improve the quality of undergraduate biology education nationwide. The stakes are too high for all biologists not to get involved with this national call for change." The PULSE certification offers evidence that Davidson biologists are eager and willing to offer their students strong pedagogy and support to answer the call.