New Partners and New Ventures for ASCB in Science Education Reform

new partnersComing next spring to iBio’s Scientific Teaching
Series (L to R)--Malcolm Campbell (Davidson College),
Bill Wood (University of Colorado, Boulder),
Kimberly Tanner (San Francisco State University).
Photo: iBio

In a 2012 Science editorial, Bruce Alberts, a former ASCB president who was then the journal's editor, urged professional societies to team up in leading innovation in science education. ASCB took that charge seriously. In an editorial that appears in the latest issue of CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE) ,  Adam Fagen, the Executive Director of the Genetics Society of America (GSA), and I announce an important editorial partnership to strengthen ASCB's science education journal, which has been called the flagship of data-driven, science education reform.

In truth, LSE is not just about cell biology or genetics or any single discipline in biology. LSE is about applying the scientific method to educational issues that cut across all the biological sciences and beyond. By joining forces, ASCB and GSA can drive a much-needed resource forward at a critical time when STEM education is in urgent need of reform. So this is a landmark moment for our societies and for science education. Both societies are deeply committed to charting new directions in science classrooms at every level.

What do we mean by editorial partnership? As we highlighted in our editorial, ASCB and GSA will work together to support the journal under the able leadership of its Editor-in-Chief Erin Dolan (University of Georgia). GSA will contribute to cover part of publication costs, while ASCB will remain the sole publisher of LSE.

The timing for this announcement could not have been better—it occurred simultaneously with the AAAS "Conference of Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education," held in Washington, DC, August 28-30. The goal for this conference, now in its second iteration, was to "mobilize people to focus on undergraduate biology education by engaging them in shared, directed, provocative, and ongoing discussions."

This group will draft a new map and an action plan to change the way biology is taught in our schools. It will be centered on key concepts and competencies fleshed out in a report written after the first Vision and Change conference in 2009. Student-centered learning is at the core, emphasizing the role of scientific research in the curriculum. Other key concepts include implementing and evaluating educational innovations; expanding the toolkit of approaches to teaching for both current and future faculty; and changing institutional cultures to overcome barriers and create incentives for innovation.

ASCB staff member Sarah Goodwin, who runs our highly successful iBioSeminars and iBioMagazine programs, was at the Vision and Change conference together with several other ASCB members, including ASCB Education Committee Chair Sue Wick (University of Minnesota). What was clear from the meeting is that our journal, LSE, is considered by science education reformers as a great example of how professional societies can be effective vehicles for implementing vision and change in science education. This is precisely what ASCB and GSA plan to do together, and why we are joining forces now. The reform movement that LSE hopes to lead and analyze is about the future of our science and the future of scientists.

All this talk of science education led me to look back at my own experience. I decided to become a scientist thanks to a visionary high school science teacher who 30 years ago implemented a startling experiment. She took us out into the field, literally into the ditches along the fields of my native Italy and had us collect and analyze the creatures and the very water they lived in. One could say that she was experimenting on us, her students, and all without Internal Review Board (IRB) approval (or the option of publishing her research in LSE).

Science education and national policy have been intertwined since the Cold War. After the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik into space, the U.S. feared that it was slipping behind in science and technology. The U.S. response was a strong policy agenda centered on space exploration but this was also the moment when the federal government stepped into education, investing for the first time directly in the science and technology educations of American students.

It took a while for American Cold War science policy to cross the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but eventually it landed on Italian shores where it sparked innovative pilot programs to teach science in the musty liceo where Latin and Greek were absolute monarchs and where science, physics, and math were the Cinderellas, shoeless in the kitchen.

But luckily, I was a guinea pig in that experiment. I learned genetics and evolution not by memorizing notions and weird names but by puttering around at the bench, by doing hands-on experiments, and by studying real specimens. The whole curriculum was problem-solving oriented, and I was completely mesmerized. From that point on, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. What could be cooler than making up questions and then making up ways to find the answers?

It was science that led me to a new life in this country but, alas, the teaching of science is not a happy business in much of America today. In too many states, schools follow rigid and overloaded curricula that remain fixated on the fact-learning approach, forcing students to memorize long lists of names, laws, and rules. Not surprisingly, most U.S. high school and undergraduate biology classrooms have a surfeit of "material" but little imagination and less enthusiasm.

Today ASCB is determined to play a part in science education reform. With its emphasis on data-driven, best-practice scholarship, LSE brings a research mindset to the problem. But ASCB has other educational irons in the fire, especially with its amazingly far-reaching iBio video programs. Conceptualized by former ASCB President Ron Vale at UCSF, the iBio programs bring top scientists into "green screen" studios to deliver inspiring lectures, spread worldwide on the Internet. In a way that would have dumbfounded the founders of molecular biology in the mid-20th century, the iBio programs give anyone with curiosity and a computer access to great cell science told by great scientists.

At ASCB, we like to stay busy. While we are buttressing our written efforts in partnership with GSA, we are also intensifying our video-education efforts. Later this fall, "Activation Energy" readers will be able to find a new iBioEducation section, focused on providing educators with the tools they need to develop an engaging, student-centered curriculum addressing 21st century skills. With this goal in mind, we developed a "Vision and Change" index of iBio materials for educators looking for materials to align their curricula with the AAAS Vision and Change guidelines for undergraduate biology education.

Over the next year, iBio will also develop a new array of tools for life science educators implementing a student-centered curriculum. One will be a series of interactive, video-based modules on scientific teaching, designed by ASCB members Bill Wood (University of Colorado, Boulder), Malcolm Campbell (Davidson College), and Kimberly Tanner (San Francisco State University). These interactive video-based activities for educators will include perspectives from different experts in the field of biology education research. It will align with the ongoing efforts to implement the Vision and Change guidelines in undergraduate education.

If you want to receive updates about iBio initiatives, I strongly encourage you to sign up for the newsletter.

When we compare U.S. science teaching standards or the scientific literacy of our children with those in other countries, we have plenty to worry about. The 21st century will be the age of knowledge economies, but I am optimistic that tools like LSE or iBio (including iBioEducation) can help steer us in the right direction. It is too easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems facing American science these days. I like to think that one day, someone, somewhere, will tell the story of how he or she became a scientist, starting with "I had this teacher..." I like to think that teacher will have been trained by LSE-based work or inspired by an iBioEducation video.

Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science.

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