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Partnership enhances biology teaching at California community colleges

When student Jeff Schinske took part in a graduate teaching fellowship through Associate Professor of Biology Kimberly Tanner's lab at San Francisco State University, the experience inspired him to teach biology. But when he graduated and became a community college instructor, Schinske found there was little professional support.

Schinske and Tanner are collaborating on a project that meets that need. With funding from the National Science Foundation, they are bringing together Bay Area community college biology instructors and helping them find innovative ways to refine their teaching.

"It can be isolating to be a community college instructor," said Schinske, who teaches biology at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. "Unlike K-12 teachers or university professors, you don't have a professional community centered on the grade level you teach or your field of research."

A lack of professional community isn't the only challenge.

"Much like university faculty, community college biology instructors are trained to conduct scientific research but they aren't trained how to teach," Tanner said.

She runs a range of programs for current and aspiring science educators through SF State's Science Education Partnership and Assessment Lab (SEPAL).

"I teach science instructors to be the best teachers that they can be," Tanner said. "This community partnership is an extension of that work." Community College Biology Faculty Enhancement through Scientific Teaching (CCB FEST) began in in 2010 and just received another NSF grant to support it for the next four years. The program includes monthly workshops, a summer intensive session, discussion groups and opportunities for community college faculty to partner with SF State graduate students.

The program encourages community college instructors to apply the rigor of scientific research to their teaching, collecting evidence from students about what they are learning and using that to refine how they teach. The approach is called scientific teaching.

"Scientific teaching draws back the curtain between what I'm teaching and what my students are learning," Schinske said. "I'm more of a partner with my students in the learning environment that I create. I teach them how to learn and believe that knowing how to learn will help them when they transfer to a university."

The ultimate goal of CCB FEST is for community college students to be more engaged in science and make a successful transition to four-year colleges. Tanner notes that approximately 60 percent of San Francisco State University's biology graduates transferred to the University from community colleges.

With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Tanner will launch a similar project this fall, helping faculty in SF State's Biology Department to enhance their teaching.


Contact: Elaine Bible
San Francisco State University

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