Occasional Paper II: What Works: Leadership— Challenges for the Future
Case study: Workshop Biology at the University of Oregon
Associate Professor, Head of Department - Biology
Research Assistant - Biology
The University of Oregon has for the past three years been conducting a FIPSE and NSF-funded curriculum development project called Workshop Biology. As a major research university, the University is committed to avoiding the common trap of emphasizing the education of undergraduate science majors and graduate students at the expense of general education. We were concerned that general biology students those who would major in the social sciences, humanities, or professional fields, and would go on to become business leaders, educators, policy-makes, and voters would be able to use their understanding of science to make effective decisions about current biological issues. Environmental issues, biotechnology advances, and public health issues are requiring individuals to have increasing levels of scientific knowledge and decision-making skills. We felt that we could create a course which surpassed the traditional lecture-based general biology course in its ability to help students learn to deal with these issues; hence the Workshop Biology project.
This project has involved two major activities: developing a new inquiry-based approach to teaching a general biology course for nonscience majors (Workshop Biology), and comparing the effectiveness of this course with that of our traditional lecture-based version of the same course. As part of the project, we travel frequently to meetings and conferences. When we heard about the Project Kaleidoscope colloquium at Reed College, we knew we had to go. Since it was much closer than most meetings we attend, we were able to take two other faculty members who have been involved in Workshop Biology as well.
The meeting was immensely productive; though we were not the primary presenters, we were given the opportunity to bring a poster, which generated a good deal of enthusiasm. In the small group sessions, we were able to get ideas from our colleagues, including their feedback about our project. We were surprised to learn that faculty and administrators from many other schools, even small, private liberal arts schools were concerned about the view of science their non-majors were getting in their traditional general biology courses, We discovered that there was substantial interest at other schools in adapting some aspects of the Workshop Biology project, from the software modules we have developed, to our assessment methods, to the curriculum itself. We have since formulated a proposal for a dissemination project and have established effective working relationships with several institutions who would serve as pilot schools in this project. Regardless of whether we receive additional funding, these relationships will continue to be profitable.
Interestingly, though we are one of the few major scientific research institutions in the region and our faculty are members of some of the most prestigious scientific associations in the world, we were unaware that there was a college-level biology educator's association in the Northwest: the Northwest Biology Instructors' Organization (NWBIO). We met members of this organization at the PKAL meeting, and have since become involved ourselves, making one of the major presentations at the NWBIO annual meetings. We will certainly continue to benefit from our membership in this association, but we likely would never have heard of it had we not become involved with PKAL. Collaborations do work!
The Project Kaleidoscope Colloquium put us into contact with other educators in our region who share similar concerns and interests in more ways than one. Its regional focus also allowed us to involve other faculty members who are ordinarily unable to attend such meetings. Its collaborative atmosphere encouraged equal participation by all, not just the main presenters. Most especially, its emphasis on science in higher education gave it the focus that is often lacking in the meetings of large, national associations, and increased the amount of useful dialogue and learning that occurred. Not only did we gain many useful insights, from hearing about our colleagues work, we also heard that we had created something of genuine interest to them, that might be useful elsewhere. Educators who were just considering new approaches needed the inspiration provided by the other participants, and we, who had been involved in an innovative program for two years, needed their feedback and support. Maintaining the connections and collaborations begun at our PKAL Colloquium will undoubtedly take work, but we believe it will be worth it.