Commentary: Biochemistry and molecular biology educators launch national network


In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences sponsored the publication, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” [1], which highlights the importance of effective science education:

Since the Industrial Revolution, the growth of economies throughout the world has been driven largely by the pursuit of scientific understanding, the application of engineering solutions, and continual technological innovation. Today, much of everyday life in the United States and other industrialized nations, as evidenced in transportation, communication, agriculture, education, health, defense, and jobs, is the product of investments in research and in the education of scientists and engineers (bold type for emphasis).

As we ask whether we are effectively preparing the next generation of scientists, the best practices of pedagogy, metacognition, assessment, core concepts, and concept inventories have come to the forefront. In this spirit, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) has launched an National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded 5 year project to support biochemistry and molecular biology educators learning what and how students learn. As a part of this initiative, hundreds of life scientists will plan and develop a rich central resource for biochemistry and molecular biology educators. This resource will include identification of biochemistry and molecular biology core concepts, skills, assessment tools, and effective pedagogical approaches. As a first step in this endeavor, experts in life science education research and concept assessment development recently converged for a Concept Assessment in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (CABMB) workshop on March 19–21, 2010 in Bethesda, MD.

“What is the concept of teaching sphingolipids?” That is one of many thought provoking questions posed by the keynote speaker, Mike Klymkowsky from University of Colorado at the CABMB meeting. This question brought home his assertions that facts should only be taught in the context of concepts. Educators should ask themselves, is there a conceptual reason for students to know this fact? Klymkowsky and coworkers presentation highlighted his experience from participating in the development of biology concept inventories [2, 3]. He stressed finding out what students think by asking them to talk through their thought process.

“Learning is what happens in the learner's mind” set the stage for Joel Michael from Rush Medical Center. Michael et al showed how to develop multiple choice questions to assess student's ability to think through and develop models in physiology [4]. Rick Moog and coworkers from Franklin and Marshall College facilitated an activity on credit default swaps, the complex financial instruments that are in the news to illustrate how to engage students in actively learning new concepts [5]. The participants, who took on the role of novices and worked in groups, quickly realized why the financial system is in the straits that it is. One suggestion was that financiers would benefit from process-oriented guided-inquiry learning (POGIL) as part of their continuing education.

Vicky Minderhout and Jenny Loertscher from Seattle University related the enormous challenge of developing robust, validated, and reliable assessment tools. Minderhout and coworkers shared their development and analysis of embedded exam questions and a biochemistry specific pre- and post-test for their Biochemistry POGIL project [5]. Their presentation highlighted the complexity of developing effective assessment tools, something that resonates with many educators. Duane Sears et al [6] from the University of California, Santa Barbara put participants to work with a rubric for evaluating concept inventory questions [7, 8]. It quickly became apparent that the design and implementation of concept inventory question is a difficult task given the inherent complexities of science and the scientists themselves.

Some questions emerged as themes from this meeting. Are foundational concepts for biochemistry different from those of chemistry and biology? Are there “big ideas” of biochemistry that rely on the same foundational concepts as other life science fields? How fine-grained should a concept be in biochemistry? Participant teams at the workshop developed preliminary lists of important concepts, undergraduate research components, and skills we would like our undergraduates to master. They also grappled with developing formative assessment questions for some concepts. There is unanimous agreement that the only way to find out if such questions are effective is by gathering data from students using the questions and talking through their answers.

This first meeting marks the beginning of a project that hopes to involve hundreds of scientists and educators in biochemistry and molecular biology and closely related fields. ASBMB is calling on all educators and researchers in these fields to participate in this ambitious project. We are asking you to identify core biochemistry and molecular biology concepts for assessment with questions that can be analyzed and validated. We also ask you to share your pedagogical approaches with us as we attempt to find out what works best in the classroom or other educational settings. This fall, the project continues with regional one day workshops coordinated around the six Undergraduate Affiliated Networks (UANs). Participants will be asked to bring their favorite exam question as a springboard for identifying core concepts and developing and evaluating formative assessment questions and tools that can then be taken back and used in their classrooms. All of the resources and tools developed during this project will feed into a groundbreaking Web-based hub for undergraduate educators in biochemistry and molecular biology.

So, we ask that you roll up yourselves, get involved, and help us plan and populate this rich central resource to help biochemistry and molecular biology educators create and assess effective learning environments for their students. As “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” [1] argues, economic growth depend on us.