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Summer Institute

Biology faculty Sue Simon Westendorf (front left), Laura DiCaprio (front center) and Janet Duerr (front right) attended the National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education in Biology.

Photo courtesy of: Robin Wright

Summer Institute

Held July 10-15 at the University of Minnesota, the institute seeks to transform biology education at research universities.

Photo courtesy of: Robin Wright

Summer Institute

Recipients, including Associate Professor Janet Duerr (shown here), were selected based on their research competence and innovation in teaching.

Photo courtesy of: Robin Wright

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Summer Institute equips biology faculty to implement innovative teaching methods

With the semester transition just one academic year away, transformative change is in the air. This summer, three faculty members in the Department of Biology tackled the issue head-on by attending the National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education in Biology.

Held July 10-15 at the University of Minnesota, the institute seeks to transform biology education at research universities by disseminating more exciting and more effective ways of teaching introductory biology.

Over the course of the institute, Assistant Professor Laura DiCaprio, Associate Professor Janet Duerr and Assistant Professor Sue Simon Westendorf worked as a team to develop modules in cell biology with the quarters-to-semesters transition in mind. Recipients were selected based on their research competence and innovation in teaching.

This was the first time that an Ohio University biology team has been selected to participate in a Summer Institute. And the timing could not have been better, according to Biological Sciences Chair Ralph DiCaprio.
"The opportunity to participate in the Summer Institute, and to implement new teaching methodologies, came at an especially appropriate time as we are in the midst of revising all of our present curricula and course offerings for the Q2S transition," he explained.

The Summer Institute format is designed to model the scientific teaching principles of active learning, assessment and diversity. Among these principles was an overall emphasis on getting away from the traditional strictly lecture format, according to Simon Westendorf.

"It's always been a problem in teaching the sciences in figuring out how you can teach students to critically analyze problem situations," she said. "In the past, we've often fallen to teaching the facts at the introductory level and hope that people teaching at the upper level will teach them how to think like scientists, work out problems, apply what they know and so on. This idea starts on day one so that while they're learning the facts, they're using them."

Daunting propositions

The merits of scientific teaching are hard to dispute.  But the reality of implementation is a daunting task, given the inevitable constraints of large classes in large lecture rooms, said Laura DiCaprio.

"Within that system we are working to find ways to place greater expectations on students to participate, analyze and have them take greater responsibility for their own learning," she said.

Another hurdle is the ever-increasing fact load in the sciences – a phenomenon that leads to bigger and bigger textbooks over time.

There's also the issue of time.

"For a regular lecture, you might spend five or six hours preparing. For an interactive lecture, you might spend 25 or 30 hours," explained Duerr.  

And as with any veteran faculty team, old habits and teaching methods are not easy to break, added Simon Westendorf.
"I'm an old dog trying to learn a new trick. And my feet don't leave the ground so easily anymore," she said with a laugh.
But the team is committed to the concept's implementation. According to Laura DiCaprio, the department will gradually work to integrate scientific teaching principles into their lessons in the coming year, while at the same time utilizing these principles to plan for the quarters to semesters change.

"Anyone who has done it said they've done it over time. And we'll try to make this incremental and work on a little bit of it each time we teach," she said.

Rewarding outcomes

Despite its challenges, scientific teaching holds a great deal of promise for Ohio University biology students. The team is especially excited about the potential to reach students who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

"I think a lot of the students in the class are going to like this process, and if you start it early enough in the quarter, they are going to come in ready to participate … so that there is an active learning atmosphere," said Simon Westendorf.

In contrast to traditional lecture formats, where students put in their work after being fed the information from a professor, the scientific teaching method encourages students to take the first step in the learning process.

"There's a certain amount of expectation -- putting more of a burden on (students) essentially to say, you will come in having read so we can start right away…We will work on it together," said Laura DiCaprio.

The new school of thought also has ramifications for the planning process, encouraging professors to develop lessons backwards, beginning with outcomes.  
"It takes a long time but when you're finished you've actually accomplished a goal, which I found really rewarding," said Simon Westendorf.

The potential impact of OHIO's participation in the Summer Institute reaches beyond the Department of Biological Sciences. As part of the Institute mandate, participants have committed to coordinating seminars in student mentoring and developing teaching workshops throughout the academic year, which will be available to all interested graduate students and faculty in other departments, according to Ralph DiCaprio.  

If those workshops are anything like the Summer Institutes, there will be more than enough enthusiasm to go around.

"There's something so rejuvenating about attending a conference with a bunch of teachers who get excited about what they do," said Simon Westendorf. "You come back refreshed…It was a teaching network that fed in every direction."

This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends put the OHIO vision into practice every day.

Related Links

National Academies Summer Institute* Biological Sciences

Additional Info

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