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Innovative University of Minnesota biology course project wins national science education award

September 24, 2013

The College of Biological Sciences (CBS) has been awarded the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction by the journal Science, the nation’s leading scientific journal.  The award recognizes a semester-long project in which undergraduate teams propose a genetic engineering solution to a health, environmental or other socially relevant problem of their choosing.

The module (Genetic Engineering Proposal Project) is part of CBS’ innovative course, Foundations in Biology, a two-semester sequence offered to entering undergraduates majoring in biology at the University’s College of Biological Sciences. The introductory course replaces the traditional "biology 101" course based on lectures and memorization and, instead, engages teams of students to learn fundamentals of biology through solving real-world problems.

Susan Wick, professor of plant biology, was lead author of an article about the winning entry, which is published in the September 27 issue of Science. Co-authors included Mark Decker, David Matthes and Robin Wright, all of whom are CBS faculty. (Wright is associate dean in the College of Biological Sciences.)

During the first semester of the course, students work in teams to develop a gene-based solution to a societal problem they choose. Instructors coach the teams throughout the semester on experimental design and resources as well as on data analysis, presentation strategies, teamwork and research ethics. Teams create posters and present them at the end of the semester, just as faculty and graduate student researchers present posters at scientific meetings.

"Students know they have accomplished something very out of the ordinary for an introductory course," Wick says. "And professionals who see the posters are very impressed with the quality of the posters, which look more like they were done by graduate students than freshmen and sophomores."

Common poster themes include bioremediation of environmental toxins using micro-organisms or plants; gene therapy in a model organism to replace defective genes that cause diseases; and methods to enhance nutritional value of crop plants in developing countries.

"The ideas that students come up with for projects are very realistic," says Wick. "In fact, in several cases professional scientists have [coincidentally] had the same ideas and published research on them after the posters were completed.

 

"Inquiry-based learning gives students the tools and confidence they need for academic and career success," says CBS junior Wesley Powers, who took the Foundations course in fall of 2011. "Traditional lectures don't cut it. Simply memorizing material is not enough. As future biologists, we want to be engaged. We need learn how to ask the right questions and work with each another to find answers. That’s true education."

Foundations of Biology is held in large interactive classrooms where approximately 125 students work in teams of nine at round tables using wall monitors to display concepts and data as they develop their projects. Two instructors move from table to table to guide the work. About 40 percent of classroom time is devoted to the projects, so teams have ample opportunity to get feedback from instructors. Students are responsible for learning biology basics from the textbook on their own.

 
The next step for CBS is to use the same inquiry-based approach for upper division biology classes, Wick says. "Federal funding agencies are encouraging this approach for teaching science and technology courses because it's simply more effective than lectures and tests."

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