Biology professors working to transform how future scientists are trained
Published March 5, 2012
Biology assistant professors Angela Hodgson and Jennifer Momsen knew a lot of facts when they completed their undergraduate science degrees. But they didn’t feel ready to go to work as scientists. “I didn’t feel qualified to do anything but take a test,” Hodgson said.
Now, as National Academies Education Fellows in the Life Sciences, they are part of a national effort to change how undergraduate science classes are taught and better prepare future scientists for the workforce. This academic year, they implemented new teaching methods in their biology I and II classes that shift the focus from learning facts to developing critical thinking skills. “Facts are easy to learn,” Hodgson said. “Students need more coaching in critical thinking and applying knowledge to real-world problems.”
Last summer, Hodgson, Momsen and Wendy Reed, associate professor and head of biological sciences, were selected to participate in the 2011 National Academies Northstar Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology. The summer institute is the result of a recommendation in the 2003 National Research Council report that called for research universities to take greater responsibility for high-quality undergraduate biology education. “There is a national call for reform of the way we teach in the sciences in general and biology specifically,” Reed said. “NDSU is poised to be a leader.”
Part of the application process for the summer institute included a pledge of support from the College of Science and Mathematics and the Department of Biological Sciences for their efforts to improve biology classes at NDSU.
During the summer institute, Hodgson, Momsen and Reed learned about innovations and research in undergraduate education that focused on active learning, student assessment and teaching methods that engage a diverse group of students.
The lecture has been banished from Hodgson’s and Momsen’s lower-level biology classes. Instead of students passively taking notes, Hodgson and Momsen engage them in activities and discussions to encourage them to problem-solve and think like scientists. “Now we’re pushing it to the other end where students do most of the work,” Momsen said.
Students are embracing the change. During registration for spring semester classes, students asked Hodgson what other professors use teaching methods similar to hers.
One of those students was Chris Tonsager, a junior pre-med major from Fergus Falls, Minn. Because he recently changed his major, he took several science classes during fall semester. He said the hands-on learning makes it easier to retain the material compared to a lecture with 50 PowerPoint slides in 50 minutes. “I can’t digest the material before moving onto the next thing,” he said of lectures.
The change has been rewarding for Hodgson, too, who has a semester and a half of the new teaching strategy under her belt. “I’ve always loved teaching, but I’m enjoying it to a whole new level,” she said.
Hodgson and Momsen are using pre-testing, post-testing and conceptual inventories to evaluate the effectiveness of the new model. They plan to analyze the results and track students through their academic careers. So far, they have found students are performing better on tests that require critical thinking than tests of the past that required them to remember facts.
“There is a lot of positive energy,” Hodgson said. “They are engaged and talking about science. I hear freshmen talking about science with their neighbors. That is so exciting.”