PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Mark Wallert

What works: Observations from the field

Mark Wallert is Professor of Biology and Physiology at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab—the environment in which you work with students—what impression would s/he leave with?

They are typically surprised / amazed with the level of energy and enthusiasm shown both by the professor and the students.

Whether in the teaching or research environment, it is one of being engaged and challenged. Students work together, they ask questions, and they are excited about their accomplishments.

What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?

In my fourth year as a professor, my dean asked me if I would be interested in attending the inaugural meeting of a new organization focusing on undergraduate STEM education. That year I attended the first Project Kaleidoscope Faculty for the 21st Century meeting.

At this meeting for the first time in my educational career, I was given permission to change the way I looked at undergraduate education and the way that I taught. None of my colleagues would have ever considered such a change. They were still teaching in the same curriculum that had been (by most of them) 20 years earlier. To them, the curriculum worked, why change.

At the PKAL F21 meeting I saw a vision of a new world, a vision of an educational environment that engaged students, a vision that made science education accessible and enjoyable. I was told that I could bring this vision to reality at MSUM. I believed and prepared for the battles that I knew would follow.

I became a PKAL disciple that weekend. Ever since, I have preached the gospel of PKAL.

Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?

The crises began the day I returned to MSUM and talked to my colleagues about my excitement about what I had learned. My enthusiasm for making changes, for working to improve the student experience, was met with cynicism, criticism, and an abundance of comments about being young and foolish (Don’t worry, this phase will pass).

I have initiated crises every step of the way since then.

Why persevere? My career passion was and still is to educated undergraduates. I came to a University that said they wanted me to start an undergraduate research program. I came following a departmental review that said the department was lacking in critical cellular and molecular aspects of biology. I was brought in to make change in a department that didn’t want it.

Why persevere? My Students! If you are not excited about helping students you shouldn’t be in education. If you are not excited about the challenge of teaching and learning in a changing world you shouldn’t be in education. If you are not excited you should leave education and help us all.

Another great support in all of this has been one of my colleagues Dr. Joseph Provost. Joe was hired in the Chemistry Department at MSUM in 1997. Shortly after he arrived we created a research partnership that has developed into an educational partnership that includes research, outreach, teaching, and biobusiness. Joe became a member of PKAL F21 in 1999. We challenge one another and make sure we keep our eyes on the goal. We have definitely developed a synergistic relationship that has made us both much better professors. If it is possible to establish a partnership with someone at your home institution I would strongly recommend it. Having an alley at home makes it easier to face the obstacles and challenges that will be placed in your way.

What connections have been of most value in doing this?

I have made so many connections in PKAL it would be difficult to rank one as most valuable. I found help changing curriculum, developing interdisciplinary programs, seeking funding, managing professional growth, and how to function as a change agent in a hostile environment. The connections that I made in PKAL are the most valuable connections I have in my entire educational career. I would dare say, even more important than my mentors in graduate school.

If pushed to list a most valued connection I would have to say meeting Dr. Ellis Bell. Ellis has been a mentor in many ways over the past decade. For me most importantly he has helped me to become involved in my national professional society, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. With Ellis’ assistance, I am a member of the Educational and Professional Development Committee for the Society. We make curriculum recommendation for biochemistry and molecular biology programs across the country. In this capacity, I co-chair the undergraduate poster competition at the national meeting and co-chair a session on research at undergraduate institution.

I am also the Co-director of the Northwest Region Undergraduate Affiliate Network of ASBMB. My partner is another PKAL disciple, Joe Provost. As part of our duties, we host and annual fall undergraduate research meeting at MSUM.

Ellis also got me involved early on helping deliver PKAL or PKAL style workshops in the upper-Midwest. I have provided workshops, campus visits, curriculum advice for over one dozen schools in the past five years. I have been a consultant for both North Dakota INBRE and Nebraska INBRE.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?

When you are just beginning what is really needed is support from at least one of your administrators.

At my very first PKAL F21 meeting we were challenged to make connections with our Dean and other members of the Administration. This meant another substantial time commitment for me, but it has made a world of difference. I took the challenge very seriously. At this point in my career I have served on several committees with my Dean; I have served on committees at the request of each of the Vice Presidents, Academic Affairs, Administrative Affairs, and Student Affairs. I found out that my University was supportive of improving science education on campus even if members of my department weren’t supportive of change. Then I managed to get my Dean and Vice-President of Academic Affairs to say that in one of our departmental meetings. This certainly did not change many of my colleagues’ minds, but it did allow me to begin working in the appropriate direction. I started first with things I controlled, like my own courses and then worked to obtain external funding, which then leveraged internal funding, to begin a new program designed in the PKAL style. This meant a couple new hires and we slowly started to change the culture at MSUM. Slowly, others accepted the challenge of revising our curriculum and changing our programs.

Over time, you will need support for your Dean through a willingness to match external grant funding. The administration needs to accept that science education is more expensive than education in most other areas. It helps to have recognition of the undergraduate research as part of your teaching load. It helps tremendously for the University President to say enhancing excellence in your program is a top priority for the University.