Fast Forward

November 08, 2017

/**/ Undergraduate education has been a priority for the College for decades. Now, a one-of-a-kind department is accelerating efforts to advance evidence-based approaches to teaching biology.

Faculty and students in Bruininks

A decade ago, the College of Biological Sciences championed efforts to establish the first active-learning classrooms at the University of Minnesota. The spaces were a radical departure from the theater-style lecture halls so familiar to generations of students. Round tables designed for collaboration replaced rows of seats facing in a single direction. It was part of a paradigm shift premised on the idea that students learn best when they put their biology knowledge to work to answer questions with real-world relevance instead of passively absorbing information.

The College’s introductory biology course sequence — Foundations of Biology — quickly became the standard bearer for this new approach, even earning accolades from the journal Science, which awarded the College its Prize for Inquiry- Based Instruction. But knowing something works and knowing why it works are two different things.

Several years ago, the College launched the Department of Biology Teaching and Learning (BTL) to dig deeper into the why. The first-of-its-kind department brings together a critical mass of faculty dedicated to discovering and sharing evidence-based approaches to teaching biology.

“We use our classrooms as laboratories to try things we think work and gather data to make that case,” says Deena Wassenberg, a teaching associate professor in the department. “Being part of BTL makes it much easier to collaborate with people who share a common interest in advancing this work. It creates a kind of feedback loop between research and actual teaching.”


The launch of BTL underscored the College’s deep commitment to biology education, but that commitment is hardly new. It goes back decades, in fact. Concerned with gaps in their students knowledge on topics like evolution, faculty launched the General Biology Program just after the College formed in the 1960s with the goal of developing curriculum designed to provide a solid grounding in basic biology concepts. More comprehensive introductory courses followed over the years. Then in the early 2000s, the College introduced Nature of Life, a four-day program at Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories for incoming students, which quickly became a model for other institutions. In 2006, the General Biology Program was renamed the Biology Program and a year later, the Foundations of Biology course sequence made its debut. The launch of BTL in 2014 grew out of that sustained effort to evolve the curriculum and create the conditions for student success. The College’s focus on biology played a role, too.

“Part of the reason this is so unique is the rarity of colleges like the College of Biological Sciences that are focused on a single subject,” says Dean Valery Forbes. “Often, you’ll find researchers interested in biology education embedded within biology departments. In such situations, it can be difficult to build a critical mass of researchers with a passion for driving innovations in biology education. The College’s focus on biology makes a department like BTL possible.”


Sehoya Cotner, an associate professor in the department, echoes that sentiment. “There’s no place like BTL in the country,” she says. “We’re first and foremost trained as scientists and we’re coming at this as scientists, which is unique. We know active learning works, for example, but as scientists we want to understand why that is.” To that end, BTL researchers investigate a range of research questions that put various aspects of the student experience under the proverbial microscope.

Abdi Warfa wants to know how what an instructor says or does helps or hinders the learning process. Warfa, an assistant professor in BTL, tests whether the two-way exchanges enabled by the active-learning approach improve outcomes. This fall, he launched a project to test this idea. He plans to record classroom interactions, interview students and gather data on student outcomes in the Foundations of Biology courses. “Dialogue in lecture-based classrooms is almost impossible,” says Warfa. “Active-learning classrooms make it possible to ask students questions and use that as the starting point for guiding them to a conclusion. I want to be able to demonstrate that and get even more granular by identifying the best types of interactions.”

Fellow BTL faculty member Anita Schuchardt wants to integrate math- and computer-based thinking into biology to help students develop conceptual models for topics like population genetics. It’s a proven approach in the sciences broadly, but not in biology — until now. “Students do best when they think holistically and learn how ideas fit together to explain why something happens the way it does. If you talk to scientists it’s what they do: They apply models, test them and refine them, but we don’t teach students that way. The idea is to teach them in the way science is done.”


Anyone who has been through the lab section of a biology course is probably well-acquainted with the “cookbook approach” in which students follow a recipe to achieve a specific result. No original questions. No original results.

BTL is upending that outdated model. Just as active-learning classrooms replaced lecture halls, the department is “flipping” the research experience, renovating old teaching labs by replacing narrow rows of lab benches with flexible spaces that facilitate interaction among students and support independent experimentation. These “active-learning labs” are meant to mimic the environment in which faculty researchers work.

“It’s not just the space to do the work, it’s the space to think. Students need space to collaborate,” says BTL interim department head David Kirkpatrick. “The hard work is really done in the thinking space. Those spaces need to be contiguous and integrated so it’s easy to move between them.”

The goal, says Kirkpatrick, is for every student to have an authentic research experience in which they are empowered to ask and answer their own research questions. “Ultimately, we want every student we teach to have a real encounter with what science is and how to do it themselves.”

Active-learning labs are part of a larger push to provide all students with an opportunity to do authentic research, including the many students who take CBS courses but aren’t majoring in biology. Course-based research projects are one avenue for achieving that goal. BTL education program specialist Jess Blum manages a number of these projects. She’s developed opportunities for students to investigate questions relating to the movements of wildlife on the Serengeti and to help identify new varieties of a promising cold-hardy cover crop called pennycress, among other topics.

“Traditionally the way students have gotten research experiences is to seek them out in faculty labs, but not every student knows to seek those out and some may not have the chance to do research at all,” says Blum. “By integrating that experience into the courses students are taking, everybody gets the opportunity to do collaborative, independent research with real-world relevance. That is something we can offer because of BTL. We have people, funding, time, energy and the know-how to make that happen.”


For Cotner, making sure every student has an authentic research experience is part of a larger drive to take down barriers to participation, especially for women and underrepresented minorities. She recently received an incubator grant from the National Science Foundation to launch a collaboration with colleges around the country — from Ivy League universities to community colleges — to develop baseline data to test ideas relating to barriers to participation.

One observation rooted in recent research comparing biology courses in active-learning classrooms and lecture hall-style classes: “In traditional classrooms, males are the dominant voices even in classes that are majority female. We’re not seeing those gaps in active-learning classrooms,” says Cotner. She plans to expand the scope of her inquiry with the new network. “If we see the same types of barriers and document interventions at other institutions, then I think we will have a real story for our colleagues looking to address these issues.”

The factors that influence whether a student succeeds are complex. Gender and other demographic factors are just part of the picture. Meaghan Stein, education success and retention coordinator in BTL, is developing a different set of metrics for identifying potential roadblocks based on less tangible factors like persistence and grit. “It’s more complex than who a student is,” says Stein. “It’s about what they think and how they behave.”

Case in point, a person’s ability to work through difficult tasks without giving up, or “persistence on task,” plays an outsized role in success. “One thing we found looking at student data so far is that lower scores on persistence on task are related to lower first semester GPA, which is related to likelihood of leaving CBS,” says Stein. “If a student feels confident they can work through difficult problems, there’s more likelihood they will stay the course.”

Kirkpatrick sees this approach as part and parcel of what BTL is about. “Our long-term goal is to achieve a more holistic view of the student experience and really pinpoint which factors play the greatest role.”


The energy and enthusiasm around the department are palpable. Faculty talk about the potential for new collaborations and to make an impact on the field with the excitement of people involved in a hot new startup. The appetite for innovation is strong. So how does a department that’s taking things to the next level get to the next level? One way is by creating an endowed chair to attract a top scholar in the field.

“The Department of Biology Teaching and Learning is like no other place in the nation for scholarship and innovation in teaching STEM,” says Forbes. “As part of continuing on this trajectory, we need to attract an established faculty member with a national reputation who will make connections across institutions. An endowed chair will help us do that.”

—Stephanie Xenos