Research News

"Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology" Initiative Charts New Path for College-level Biology

Meeting the needs of the 21st Century

According to a rising chorus of biology educators, major changes in the teaching of undergraduate biology are needed to bring undergraduate biology courses into the 21st century. Such changes, these educators say, are necessary because modern biology has, in recent years, undergone major transformations. For example, biologists have used emerging technologies and interdisciplinary collaborations to rapidly open new areas of biological research and pioneer new approaches that enhance our understanding of living systems.

Associated advancements in biology are helping society better address urgent problems involving climate, energy, food and health. At the same time, a communications revolution has created a hyper-connected world in which information flows fast and freely. Because of these trends, the ways in which we discover, understand and learn about biology have profoundly changed.

In response to these new realities, biology educators are considering ways to better prepare college students for careers in the life sciences and to promote biological literacy in our citizenry. In doing so, they have increasingly recognized that traditional undergraduate teaching approaches that aim to "cover it all" cannot accommodate the ongoing explosion of new information in biology.

A call to action

To help biology educators modernize undergraduate biology education, the National Science Foundation (NSF)--in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)--launched a national initiative in 2007 called Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology. This initiative was designed to distill a set of cutting-edge, 21st century approaches to undergraduate biology education from decades of conversations, reports and calls for change. Steadily gaining momentum, the initiative has, thus far, culminated in:

  1. A national conference, titled "Transforming Undergraduate Biology Education: Mobilizing the Community for Change," that was held in 2009 and attended by more than 500 biology faculty members, administrators, students and other stakeholders. The conference was hosted by AAAS with support from NSF and input from HHMI and NIH.
  2. The release in 2011 of a final report, titled "Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action", which--based on the diverse insights expressed at the conference--provides a roadmap for the future of undergraduate biology education.

The final report's findings were summarized by a quote from Carol Brewer, professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Montana and the conference co-chair, that was included in a summary of the final report.  Brewer said, "We all have work ahead of us to ensure that the transformations we make in biology classrooms around the country reflect the biology we do in the 21st century."

To help guide this transformative effort, the final report identifies:

  • Core concepts that students must understand in order to become biologically literate. These concepts are: 1) evolution (the diversity of life-forms that have evolved over time through mutations, selection and genetic change; 2) structure and function (the basic units of biological structures that define the functions of all living things); 3) information flow, exchange and storage (the influence of genetics on the control of the growth and behavior of organisms); 4) pathways and transformations of energy and matter (the ways in which chemical transformation pathways and the laws of thermodynamics govern the growth and change of biological systems); and 5) systems (the ways in which living things are interconnected and interact with one another).
  • Core competencies--beyond the concepts identified above--that students must experience in order to become biologically literate and practice science. These competencies are: 1) the ability to apply the process of science; 2) the ability to use quantitative reasoning; 3) the ability to use modeling and simulation; 4) the ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science; 5) the ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines; and 6) the ability to understand relationships between science and society.

Facilitating change in the biology classroom

Another critical aspect of the report is its emphasis on the importance of developing student-centered teaching approaches that actively engage students in interactive, inquiry-driven, cooperative and collaborative activities. According to the report, these approaches should convey to students the wonder of the natural world and the passion and curiosity of scientists, involve students in authentic research experiences, and teach students how to evaluate complex biological problems from varied perspectives without just reciting facts and terminology.

To promote the development of student-centered approaches, the report directs readers to practical resources to help them integrate student-centered learning throughout biology curriculums, relevant examples of successful models and approaches to student-centered learning, and practical advice on using assessment tools.

In addition, the report recommends designing and revising undergraduate biology courses to incorporate clearly defined, measurable goals; the latest insights into how people learn; and successful best practices in teaching that have been identified by science education researchers and practitioners.

The report also cites the need for institutions--including colleges, universities, professional societies and federal and private funding sources--to create environments that promote advances in biology education. The report advises institutions to do so by preparing and training future faculty members to create student-centered classrooms, offering professional development in teaching to all biology faculty members, hiring biologists who have education specialties, and devoting funds and resources to improving biology education.

Gaining momentum

To further energize biology educators, the next phases of the Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Initiative are currently being planned. These steps will involve engaging the biology community in the identification and dissemination of strategies for curricular reform at the departmental and institutional levels, and developing--in partnership with professional societies--a Web portal that features curricular resources for undergraduate biology courses that are based on the latest developments in scientific teaching.

What's next? A large, national meeting is currently being planned for 2013. This meeting will focus on updates to the initiative's progress and on methods used to achieve such progress. In addition, vision and change fellows will be identified who will work together to draft an implementation framework that is expected to help institutionalize the adoption of the recommendations across various types of institutions.