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Research-Centered Education in Biological Sciences: National Science Foundation Workshop

University of California, Davis
September 30, 1996
Barbara D. Webster
NSF Biology Advisory Committee

The most valuable and farsighted concept to emerge from the original Bush vision was that by supporting research in the universities, the government would also be investing in the education of the next generation-a beautiful and efficient concept. In short, every dollar spent would be doing double duty. This integration of teaching and research is at the heart of America's unique system of research.

Charles Vest
Cornell University, 1995

Biology is an experimental science and strong links between research and education are natural and essential. One goal of this workshop is to identify and evaluate the mechanisms by which we take advantage of the linkages between research and education in the design and delivery of our curriculum, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. One outcome of the workshop will be to develop a framework for creating a "research-centered" educational process that will enable students and teachers at all levels to use the principles and procedures associated with research and discovery to learn the facts, concepts, and ideas essential for modern biologists now and in the future. A specific challenge will be to identify ways in which the research approach can be integrated into an undergraduate curriculum designed for large numbers of students with diverse backgrounds and diverging career expectations. Issues to be addressed include: individual research experiences for undergraduates; the role of laboratory and field courses; bringing the research/discovery approach into the classroom; the role of new technologies, especially computer technology; and the changing expectations for graduate education.

Mark G. McNamee, Dean
Biological Sciences, UC Davis, 1996


On 30 September 1995 approximately 60 members of the UC Davis campus community gathered at the Buehler Alumni Center for a day-long workshop on Research-Centered Education in Biological Sciences. Included in the group were administrators, faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students from the Schools/Colleges of Letters and Science, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Division of Biological Sciences and of Graduate Studies. The program for the day had three major components particularly germane to research and education: research in the undergraduate curriculum; the changing face of graduate education; and the impact of new technologies on teaching and research. Each section of the program was introduced by a panel of speakers describing new approaches, case studies or overviews of the topic. These were followed by breakout group sessions or general audience discussions. The workshop was moderated by the Dean of Biological Sciences and the individual sections and discussions were led by participating faculty. The outcomes were summarized by a look to the future development of a research-centered framework for biology education in the 21st century. (see Appendix 1.)

The Program

I. Research in the Undergraduate Curriculum
In his opening remarks, the Dean asked workshop participants to consider how the curriculum might look if we designed it with research in mind; and, given the fact that at UC Davis there are approximately 3,600 undergraduate majors in biology, how we might go about developing an approach to making research relevant to education. This led directly to the first panel presentations on examples of new approaches to individual research participation of undergraduates and the teaching of large numbers of students to "think like scientists". Salient points of some innovative research-centered education programs developed by biological sciences faculty are summarized in Appendix 2-A,B,C, D.

Some important points raised by panelists included:

  • the need for salaries for undergraduate participants in laboratory research.
  • the importance of collaboration among students and among laboratories with common interests.
  • the value of small group learning assistance, of discussion groups, and of written and oral reports.
  • the value of personal connections between faculty and undergraduate research participants.
  • the importance and scope of advising of undergraduates in biology in preparing them for the "real world".
  • the multiple benefits of involving graduate students with undergraduates in research.

In the breakout groups discussions which followed, two groups focussed on what we expect an undergraduate to learn from a research experience and what the goal is in the efforts to involve undergraduates in research. Major conclusions were as follows:

  • the ability to solve problems is of prime importance in the undergraduate experience.
  • the laboratory research experience should lead to an understanding of the applications of the research.
  • scientific literacy can be acquired without hands-on research (e.g., through reading, critical analyses of newspaper articles and research reports and certain courses such as ethics).
  • getting students to think analytically could be achieved by group discussions of critical problems.
  • not all students are interested in laboratory research, and the laboratory experience does not always motivate students to continue in the sciences.
  • everyone should be clear on the goal when/if the effort is made to involve all biology undergraduates in research.

Two other breakout groups discussed what is to be expected from undergraduates in research-based courses and what the optimal size and form of such courses might be. Among the comments were the following:

  • the expectation is that students will learn "how to think" and that they will develop skills of inquiry.
  • course forms could include lectures, discussion sessions, field courses, laboratories and/or a balance among them.
  • courses should not be designed as campaigns to attract majors; not all undergraduates will have further interest in science in general or biology in particular.
  • students should acquire understanding of the scientific method and an appreciation of scientific approaches and techniques.

II. The Changing Face of Graduate Education
In an overview of graduate studies at UC Davis, the Dean reminded the participants that there are nearly 3,000 graduate students and approximately 2,200 professional school students on campus. There are 80 graduate programs offering advanced degrees. Graduate study is organized as departmental programs or as graduate groups. Graduate groups, which are self-governing organizations of faculty, include 18 in biology. The Dean then challenged workshop participants to reflect on structural differences among graduate programs and graduate groups and to evaluate successes and challenges of graduate studies, which tend to have an intense focus on research (perhaps at the expense of the educational component). See Appendix 3A-H.

As examples of innovative approaches to combining research and education in graduate studies, training grant programs, including that of the UC Davis NSF-funded Science and Technology Center, were described by principal investigators of the programs. See Appendix 4A-E. The general discussion which followed compared and contrasted departmental graduate programs, graduate groups and graduate training grant programs. Major points made by the speakers and the audience were as follows:

  • programs in which groups of students present reports of their research enhance students' speaking ability and help develop their organizational skills.
  • the interactions between visiting scientists and students are important in developing students' perspectives of various career opportunities in biology.
  • training grant programs generate a high degree of enthusiasm for sharing ideas and common interests among colleagues.
  • the versatile menu of components in a training grant program (e.g., seminars, workshops, retreats, journal clubs, focussed advising, internships) enhances the concept of the integration of research and education.
  • postdoctoral students play critical roles in the education of graduate students.
  • departmental graduate programs cannot offer the range of opportunities of training grant programs but often do include journal clubs, student research presentations, and visiting scientist interactions with students.
  • training grant programs promote appreciation of teamwork among students and faculty.
  • a training grant model could work for all graduate students but not through the present graduate group structure and organization.

III. Is New Technology Really Going to Change Teaching and Research in Biology?
The final segment of the workshop program was a wide ranging discussion of new technologies and the extent to which teaching and research in biology might change with incorporation of new technology. The audience listed technologies which they felt had the potential to improve or supplement the way in which we now teach and do research, including, e.g., the web, Internet, computer simulations, 3-D animation, genomics, data acquisition, interactive modules, the "virtual university", statistical packages. All of the above were deemed to have potential to improve or supplement the way in which we teach biology; the choice of technologies, it was noted, is up to the individual and selection may be based both on ease in use or because the subject cannot be handled without the technology.

A limiting factor in employment of some technology was felt to be accessibility by students. Students come to the university expecting to have access to various technology. This needs to be widely, easily and cheaply available.

Two final and particularly interesting perceptions were noted by workshop participants: first, that dependence on technologies may lead to more solitary, rather than more interactive, pursuits among faculty and students; and second, that extensive use of technologies may minimize dependence on people power.

IV. Workshop Summary
The final workshop summary viewed the discussions of the day as constituting a framework for future directions in the biological sciences at UC Davis at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. By bringing together a diverse and campus wide group of people interested in research and education, it established a foundation from which a vision of the future in biology can develop. One of the most impressive outcomes of the workshop was a recognition of the enthusiasm and versatility of the faculty in organizing and implementing innovative programs in research and education in biology. It is evident that the biology faculty looks to the future with a willingness to put forth extraordinary efforts to develop a research-centered education in biology. It would be shortsighted indeed to fail to capitalize on such willingness.

Hardcopy Appendices for this report may be obtained via email from Mrs. Peggy Weber; by phone (703) 292-8400 or by writing:

Mrs. Peggy Weber
Biological Sciences, Rm. 605 North
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230


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