Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Vision & Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: Bruce Alberts

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has published a document called Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education. Over the next few days I'm going to introduce the main recommendations and hopefully stimulate some discussion.

Today, we'll start with a video from Bruce Alberts the former head of the National Academies and currently editor-in-chief of Science magazine (published by AAAS). Pay attention to what he has to say. I agree with everything.1

Bruce Alberts understands that we (university professors) are the problem and it's up to us to fix it.
... the future of science education ... depends on what college professors do in their teaching much more than I would ever have expected ...

Dr. Bruce Alberts’ Message to Vision and Change

1. Bruce was my Ph.D. supervisor.


  1. Let's take a specific.
    Let's consider how one might teach ATP synthase.
    Here are a couple of videos:



    Let's imagine Teacher 1 teaching this topic and Teacher 2 teaching this topic.

    Teacher 1 presents the ATP synthase as a mechanism that evolved though random, undirected forces.
    Teacher 2 teaches it as an engineered, nanotechnology machine engineered by the intelligence of Nature.

    I have a little experience with this, having presented it both ways to a few people.
    The difference in the reaction from the students is dramatic.
    The Teacher 2 approach fires up the student. They are interested and want to learn more. They can actually see the marvel of engineering and want to relate it to other machines they are familiar with such as an outboard motor or a car engine or how this works in plants along with photosynthesis. In other words the subject comes alive.

    The students of the Teacher 1 approach are not nearly as interested.

    This is not a Creationist approach.
    Nature itself is intelligent and the student can come alive to this idea.

    Anyone can try this as an experiment and see for yourself.

  2. Education in large part depends on educators. What a surprising concept!

  3. DK says,

    Education in large part depends on educators. What a surprising concept!

    It's common for university professors to blame the primary schools and the high schools when they are "forced" to graduate scientifically illiterate students from university.

    University professors tend not to accept responsibility for the poor jobs we do in universities.

    What this means is that it IS a surprising concept to a great many educators who should know better.

  4. Generally I would agree with Dr. Alberts comments, and I too share some disappointment in myself as a TA for intor courses in the past. There are a couple of difficulties with on doing the mile-wide inch deep curricula. One would be that certain disciplines get left out, and that does have an impact. One can hope that when the students get to college they will be able to snare fresh faces, but a large percentage of students will have already made choices about what areas and subjects to investigate more, if they have never seen anything from same botany or mycology before they are less likely to ever take a class in it. Second I would argue that a fairly large breadth of knowledge is actually needed to understand in full measure the nature of science and evolution.

    Dr. Alberts was also wrong about the ability to teach the nature of science, the literature on the subject clearly shows that regardless of method and even in science majors in a course that emphasizes teaching the nature of science it cannot be done in a single course. One can have an impact, but it is too nuanced of a subject and often involves way too much concept change to do a good job in one course.

  5. What this means is that it IS a surprising concept to a great many educators who should know better.

    Yeah. But what else can you expect in a system where teaching has absolutely last priority for research university professors? Most educators I know hate teaching (some even admit it openly). They were never hired based on their teaching abilities or prospects, their salaries don't depend on their teaching and teaching hardly plays any role in how they are evaluated by peers.
    So it should come as no surprise that an undergrad education at flagship universities is a total joke.

  6. It seems that Dr. Moran is not criticizing the profs teaching ability (which may or may not be good) but rather their lack of understanding of evolution theory.

    The profs are not up on the latest just-so stories and are teaching the old just-so stories that have been proven to be wrong.

  7. I think we need a holistic education process and it must be followed by scientific approach. Most of the people of the world dont know what is happening in 3rd world. Its just horrible !
    Nahidul Islam Rumel | Co-ordinator, What is Biotechnology | Biotech for beginners | A voluntary initiatives for school going learners.