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SF State biology department receives $1.5 million to support science teaching

SAN FRANCISCO, May 24, 2012 -- The San Francisco State University Department of Biology has received a $1.5 million education grant from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to support the faculty as they refine their teaching skills and explore new resources and new ways to assess their students' learning.

The 2012 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Science Education Award will support a new program called Biology Faculty Explorations in Scientific Teaching (FEST). The program will begin in September 2012 and continue for four years. SF State is one of only three applicants for the grant to receive the maximum award amount of $1.5 million.

Biology FEST has the potential to transform the learning experiences of nearly 5000 students -- almost 20 percent of the SF State student body -- who enroll in biology courses, said Kimberly Tanner, professor of biology and the grant's principal investigator. She is the director at the University's Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory (SEPAL).

National experts have urged a complete overhaul of undergraduate science education, Tanner noted, but few programs address the key role that university teachers will have to play in this transformation. "Scientists are trained to be fabulous researchers, and then the vast majority of them are drop-kicked into a college or university classroom and told to teach, with no training in how to teach effectively the science they know," she said.

The Biology FEST program will help the biology faculty refine their teaching in the same way they approach their lab and field work: using scientific, evidence-based methods, Tanner said. They will "put their scientific skills to work in their classrooms," she noted, discovering the best ways to teach, collaborate and measure their students' progress.

The grant will fund scientific teaching workshops and a summer institute for biology faculty, faculty team collaborations that bring together four faculty members to observe and collaborate on teaching challenges, mini-grants for curriculum changes, new classroom equipment and partnerships with graduate students to develop assessments.

Tanner noted that 88 percent of the faculty has shown interest in the program -- and that fewer than 28 percent of them reported having any teacher training beyond a graduate school teaching assistantship. "The quality of our research is extraordinarily high, and the quality of intentions is also very high, but most university scientists are not trained in effective approaches to teaching," she said.

"We have a very talented, very willing faculty, and they're ready to be innovative," she continued. "They just need access to new ways of thinking and to intellectual and material resources to support change."

Tanner believes the Biology FEST program could become a national model for improving undergraduate science education through a sustained focus on supporting faculty innovations in teaching, an idea echoed by HHMI.

"HHMI is investing in these schools because they have shown they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college," said Sean B. Carroll, vice president of science education at HHMI. "We know that these schools have engaged faculty. They care deeply about teaching and how effectively their students are learning about science."


Contact: Nan Broadbent
San Francisco State University

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