HHMI Professors on changing the culture of science education

13 HHMI Professors, including Brandeis’s Irving Epstein, wrote a recent editorial in the journal Science calling for a reexamination of priorities between research and teaching at research universities. The seven initiatives they call for:

  1. Educate faculty about research on learning.
  2. Create awards and named professorships that provide research support for outstanding teachers.
  3. Require excellence in teaching for promotion.
  4. Create teaching discussion groups.
  5. Create cross-disciplinary programs in college-level learning.
  6. Provide ongoing support for effective science teaching.
  7. Engage chairs, deans, and presidents.

Strong stuff — will we respond to this challenge?

A text-based student community for reading and writing science

Science and technology moves forward at a very rapid pace. Those who don’t continue to read the literature become outmoded. What kinds of learning activity help students develop the necessary skills, and habit, for reading science?

In the dissertation work of Johann Larusson, my lab began to develop a co-blogging environment that already has been adopted in several different classes at Brandeis. Student co-blogging is a text-based online student community that supports students as they learn to read and write science.

In the co-blogging environment, each student has a blog. The blog is composed of multiple posts written by the blog owner. Students can read each other’s blog posts and comment on them. Student co-blogging has tremendous potential as a learning activity. It continues to be a research topic for my lab.

Co-blogging enables students to move beyond just rereading their notes and assigned readings as a way to learn material. Students have the opportunity to review, rethink, articulate, explaining in their own words what is significant about the material, making “common” sense of the causal relations among the different elements of the course content. The discussions that naturally emerge expose the students to alternate ways of “seeing” and “constructing” what is significant and why, allowing students to collaboratively work through arguments and trade-offs, weighing and comparing different explanations and justifications. To a greater or lesser degree each of these elements has developed in the courses I teach.

During the semester, there is an aggregation of content in the blogosphere. Topics and themes introduced at the beginning of the semester persist in the blogosphere and can be revisited and further developed as they again become relevant. The aggregated content of the blogosphere can be exploited for other learning activities like constructing arguments, summarizing the literature, writing papers, or preparing for exams.

Each post in the blogosphere is tagged by the student from a selection of pre-defined topics. These tags help students to navigate the blogosphere. Students also receive daily email newsletters that summarize the online co-blogging activity of the class in the previous 24 hours. Students can use links in the newsletter to directly navigate to posts or comments on the blog site that are of particular interest.

The co-blogging environment provides some visualizations for the teacher and students that represent student activity level, balance of participation, and other aspects of the blogosphere. The visualization shown below helps students and teachers locate discussions within the blogosphere.

BOLLI Bioethics & Law Course

In a country where baby boomers comprise 26.1% of the population, a commitment to lifelong learning has never been more important – both for the education of a large constituency of voters, and for the health of our nation. Adult learning has been shown to offer protective features against many diseases of aging and has recently become a priority for progressive academic institutions, such as Brandeis University.

At BOLLI (Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Initiative), adult learning is therefore a high priority. During interactive and informative classes, both historical and current issues are studied and debated. The program began in 2000, created to meet the “still unfulfilled demand for educational and intellectual stimulation for adults who are beyond the traditional university years.” In 2004, this Brandeis Adult Learning Institute (BALI) developed into the BOLLI program, “one of 122 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes throughout the nation, offers a broad range of noncredit educational activities for retired, semi-retired and other adult participants. The program emphasizes peer leadership, individual and group participation and research, and an atmosphere of sociability and mutual encouragement.” [2]

This fall, a Bioethics & Law course is being co-taught by Charles Baron, Professor Emeritus of Boston College Law School, and by Milton Heifetz, a retired world-renowned neurosurgeon. Two Brandeis graduate students: Marilana Rufo, a Masters of Philosophy candidate, and Danna Zeiger, a Molecular and Cell Biology PhD Candidate, have enjoyed the opportunity to participate as BOLLI scholars in this Bioethics & Law course. The students of the class range from established lawyers to retired teachers and through a wide variety of ages and experiences. Each class elicits constant fervor over heated debates of scientific topics such as the bioethics of organ transplantation, human experimentation, and genetics and the law. In the genetics and law class, led by Danna Zeiger, the discussion was focused specifically on embryonic stem cell and embryo selection. Both of these controversial issues have been recently relevant in legal contexts, such as in the court-mandated freeze on stem cell research. Interesting legal issues, such as the restrictions of defects in embryos selected for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), the range of genetic defects known, and defects which are culturally controversial, such as deafness, were discussed and such legal cases were studied and debated. These issues are often hard for lay-voters to decipher and the BOLLI program affords the opportunity for adults from the community to learn about and discuss these often-jargon-filled but interesting controversies. To learn more or to become involved in the BOLLI program, see http://www.brandeis.edu/bolli/.

Quantitative Biology Lecture Competition

Trisha Murray wrote:

The Quantitative Biology Program at Brandeis University, supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is now soliciting applications for an award for preparing an outstanding set of three pedagogical lectures on a subject at the interface of the physical and biomedical sciences. These lectures will be given at the Quantitative Biology Bootcamp to be held Sunday, January 11 & Monday, January 12, 2009. The award consists of a cash prize of $2,000.

Any graduate student or postdoctoral research associate currently at Brandeis is eligible to apply. The application packet should consist of short curriculum vitae and a one page outline of the three lectures. QB faculty will work with the successful applicant in preparing the lectures. Applications should be submitted before Monday, December 1, to Trisha Murray, either by campus mail (MS009), or via E-mail.

*An information session for potential applicants will be held Monday, November 10, Kosow Conference Room (2nd floor) 1 -2 pm.

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