Groundbreaking department launches at the U of M

Minneapolis (10/1/14) — The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has launched a first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation department dedicated to illuminating evidence-based approaches to biology education. The new Department of Biology Teaching and Learning (BTL) will serve as a nexus for scientific teaching, research on effective pedagogies, and public engagement in biology at the U of M.

“Across the nation, many biological sciences departments have, or are recruiting, one or two people to do biology education research.  Our department will be the first to devote its entire research focus on issues of teaching biology.” says Robin Wright, the head of BTL and senior associate dean for undergraduate initiatives in the College of Biological Sciences.

The new department will focus on teaching at the undergraduate level, as well as training graduate students in evidence-based teaching and education research. It represents  the launch of a new collaboration between the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). “One of the great opportunities made possible through our alliance with CEHD is the chance to collaborate around graduate programs, including certificate programs in biology education for Ph.D. candidates doing traditional bioscience research,” says Wright.

The biology major and a portfolio of signature programs, including the award-winning Foundations of Biology courses, fall under the auspices of the new department. BTL will also serve as an incubator for new-student research and retention initiatives, along with the new academic journal on scholarly teaching, CourseSource.

“The new department is an example of how combining the capacity and expertise of two excellent colleges can be leveraged to create innovative and valuable educational experiences for students at the U of M and outreach to the community,” says Deborah Dillon, CEHD’s associate dean for graduate and professional programs. “Working together, we will be able to deliver learning opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty that would not be possible otherwise.”

Two new grants totaling more than $3 million over five years — $1.9 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and $1.2 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) — will fund new initiatives integral to BTL’s mission. They include a program designed to provide University of Minnesota-Twin Cities undergraduates taking introductory biology with unprecedented opportunities to do original research and an effort to develop an integrated, technology- and community-supported  approach to increasing student retention.

The NSF award will make it possible for the college to provide hands-on research experiences to about 13,000 students who take biology courses over the grant period through a new program called Integrated Science Education for Discovery in Introductory Biology (InSciED-In), modeled on Mayo Clinic’s Integrated Science Education Outreach (InSciEd Out) program. InSciED-In will provide a framework for undergraduates to work with faculty and post-doctoral research mentors to develop and investigate their own original research questions.

The HHMI award will support an effort to integrate academic and advising systems. “The grant will support our efforts to provide ongoing feedback that uses technology to let students know how they are doing in as close to a real-time basis as we can get, and to use that information to help them succeed,” says Wright.

For more information, visit the Department of Biology Teaching and Learning.