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National initiative launched to change the way biology departments approach undergraduate education

WASHINGTON, DC A new national initiative promises to improve college biology education by engaging faculty members in an effort to change how post-secondary life sciences departments approach education. PULSE, which stands for Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education, is a collaborative effort funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Program organizers also announced today that they are accepting applications from faculty members interested in becoming Vision and Change Fellows individuals who will lead a national effort to stimulate systemic change in how post-secondary educational institutions approach biology education. The intent of the program is to develop a strategy to implement the findings from a 2011 report.

College students and faculty members have long argued that the approach to undergraduate education in the life sciences should be modernized to reflect what we now understand about how students learn. Twenty-first century science demands that students develop scientific and technical skills, and also the capacity to work beyond traditional academic boundaries. Undergraduate students, regardless of their major, deserve and need a life sciences education that helps then understand biology and how scientific research is conducted. Informed decision-making, whether managing one's health, deciding what food to eat, or understanding how individual actions influence the environment, requires an appreciation of the nature of science.

In 2006, the NSF initiated a multi-year conversation with the scientific community, with support from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That dialogue, which was co-funded with the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, generated the 2011 report, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.

The scientific community actively informed the recommendations in the Vision and Change report. Among these were a recognition that a 21st century education requires changes to how biology is taught, how academic departments support faculty, and how curricular decisions are made.

"There is now broad consensus about the change that is needed," said HHMI's Cynthia Bauerle. The way biology is taught needs to change in order to "spark student interest in science and prepare them for the challenging scientific problems we face in the 21st century."

Prior efforts to reform post-secondary life sciences education have focused on helping individual faculty members improve their teaching methods. These initiatives have created points of excellence at institutions across the country, but have failed to produce the systemic change that is needed to fundamentally improve college-level biology education.

To foster this widespread change, the NSF, NIH, HHMI have partnered to launch the PULSE program. Supporting the effort are Knowinnovation and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

The PULSE initiative will facilitate the systemic change that was identified as a national priority in the Vision and Change report.

Clifton A. Poodry of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the division of NIH providing funding to PULSE, notes that NIH has a long-standing commitment to training the next generation. "We look forward to furthering this goal through our partnership with NSF and HHMI to implement recommendations of the Vision and Change report for improving undergraduate biology education," said Poodry.

This year PULSE will select 40 Vision and Change Fellows. The selection process will identify individuals experienced in catalyzing undergraduate biology education reform at institutional, departmental, or divisional levels in the nation's colleges and universities. The Vision and Change Fellows will represent research universities, regional or comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. The Fellows will be engaged in a yearlong effort to develop an implementation strategy for the Vision and Change report.

"What we are trying to achieve is systemic change, transformation of undergraduate biology education in this country," stated Judith Verbeke of the NSF. This is why the PULSE effort is encouraging current or former biology department heads to apply. "The focus is intentional," said Verbeke, "because it's at the level of the department that so many decisions are made. We are looking to the department as the most appropriate unit to make real change."

Ideal applicants will be aware of the history and discourse of reforming undergraduate life sciences education; have undergraduate teaching experience as well as experience mentoring, motivating and evaluating other faculty; and will have experience as current or former chairs or department heads. Applicants should be active in cultivating the mix of scholarship in teaching and life sciences research appropriate to their type of institution. Successful candidates will have a record of working collaboratively and creatively with individuals from different backgrounds.

It is through diversity of perspective that we achieve change, Bauerle said, "We seek not only those who are already members of the choir, but also committed life scientists and educators who question how best to proceed."


Contact: Dr. Robert Gropp
202-628-1500 x250
American Institute of Biological Sciences

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