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Plenary speech by HHMI professor highlights efforts of scientist-educators

Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Graham Walker leads a research group focused on science education. He aims to recreate the creativity and excitement of his research lab: doctoral and graduate students working with Walker and their MIT colleagues to identify new research questions in science education and brainstorm ways to solve them.

Walker will talk about his experiences running a science education research group and developing resources for MIT and the larger education community in a plenary talk, "Inspiration and Engagement in Education," on Monday, February 21, 2011, at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Walker is an HHMI professor, one of a small group of leading research scientists who are committed to making science more engaging to undergraduates. He started up his education research group with his HHMI professor funding in 2002, and since then it has tackled dozens of problems related to science education.

When it first started, the education research group began listing biology concepts and grouping them together to see how they were related, inspired by the Force Concept Inventory, a list of physics concepts to keep track of students' progress,. "In biology, there's about a billion concepts," Walker says. "We tried to put all these many, many concepts into hierarchical, cross-referenced piles and see which ideas arrived at the top." They came up with 18 top-level statementssuch as "DNA is the source of heritable information in a cell "and arranged sub-concepts in levels underneath them.

One of these statements, "At the molecular level, biology is based on three-dimensional interactions of complementary surfaces," particularly struck Walker. He noticed that students in his introductory biology classes were having trouble understanding the complex, three-dimensional structure of proteins, in part because they were studying proteins as two-dimensional objects on a flat piece of paper.

Walker's education research group meetings, which are modeled on research lab meetings, included colleagues from MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, specifically programmers that help bring research into the classroom. The group reviewed various programs that display protein structure, but the software was all either too simplistic or too hard for students to use. "They finally said, 'Why don't we just build a new protein viewer from the ground up?'" Their resulting creation, StarBiochem, is a computer program that is now free online and is used all over the world to teach about protein folding.

Software like this lets teachers move beyond just lectures to get undergraduates more closely involved with their material, which educators call "active learning." The collaboration led to related genetics software, StarGenetics, which students can use to carry out simple genetic experiments without having to anesthetize a single fruit fly.

Walker's HHMI professorship was renewed last year and he looks forward to having his education research group spin off in new and interesting directions. They will experiment with new ways to educate students in the biological sciencesnew ways to get across some of the other basic biology concepts, for example. "I'm kind of hoping some idea will come up that will catch us all off guard" the way the protein folding software did, he says.

Walker's talk will be held at 8:30 a.m. February 21 at the Washington Convention Center East Salon.

Other talks by HHMI scientists at the AAAS meeting include:

  • Jo Handelsman, an HHMI professor at Yale, is giving a talk on how to engage students actively in learning. Her talk is part of a session on how to reform biology education for undergraduates, and Handelsman will discuss how to use evidence-based teaching and learning methods to improve science education. Saturday, February 19, 2011: 2:00 p.m., Room 102B
  • Seth Cooper, a computer science graduate student working with HHMI investigator David Baker at the University of Washington, will talk about the development of the innovative computer game Foldit. The game invites members of the public to help researchers crack "the protein-folding problem," one of molecular biology's toughest challenges. The work was described in the journal Nature in August 2010. Sunday, February 20, 2011: 2:00 p.m., Room 145B
  • Karl Deisseroth, an HHMI early career scientist at Stanford, will be talking about his research in the burgeoning field of optogenetics. Deisseroth is one of the field's pioneers and he'll discuss a new technique that allows scientists to use light to turn individual neurons on or off. He and his colleagues have used the technique to study depression, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia. Sunday, February 20, 2011: 3:00 p.m., Room 146A
  • Robert Darnell, an HHMI investigator at The Rockefeller University in New York, will talk about the relationship between the regulation of RNA, stress and human disease. His lab has developed new methods to generate genome-wide maps of the places where RNA and regulatory proteins interact, and he will illustrate the wide range of insights these methods are yielding, from understanding of immunologic stress to Lou Gehrig's disease. Monday, February 21, 2011: 9:45 a.m., Room 147A


Contact: Andrea Widener
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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