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The FIRST Project for Reforming Undergraduate Science Teaching

AIBS Eye on Education

Cathy Lundmark

The impetus behind Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching (FIRST) is elegantly simple. "We expect team members to bring the same kind of reflective judgment to their teaching as they do to their disciplinary research," says Diane Ebert-May, a plant biology professor at Michigan State University, whose fervent enthusiasm for teaching science is contagious. When scientists examine the parallels between the approaches to scientific research with the approaches to teaching and assessment of learning, they begin to see how to develop instructional strategies that improve student learning.

Four years ago Ebert-May and project codirector Jan Hodder, an equally energetic associate professor of biology at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, implemented the pilot FIRST, which lasted two years. The goal of FIRST and its recently initiated successor, FIRST II, is to work with faculty to use effective teaching methods that help students learn biology the way science is practiced, through an active, inquiry-based approach. The unique element of Hodder and Ebert-May's plan is to conduct these faculty-development workshops at field stations and marine laboratories. "Field stations and marine laboratories are good places to hold these, because they easily foster a sense of community," Hodder explains, "making them an ideal environment for cooperative learning among teams." Many biologists are accustomed to conducting research in the field, so what better place to experience firsthand how to incorporate active, inquiry-based teaching into their courses? "Field stations and marine laboratories," Hodder continues, "offer an environment where science teaching and learning can be fully integrated into the professional culture along with discipline-based activities."

FIRST II is organized around eight field stations and marine laboratories: Archbold Biological Station (Florida); the Louisiana University Marine Consortium; Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Station (Michigan); Murray State University's Hancock Biological Station (Kentucky); Howard University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which are utilizing the Baltimore long-term ecological research (LTER) site; San Diego State University Field Station; University of Akron (Ohio); and the University of Washington's Pack Forest. Each location has a three-person field station team which recruits teams of primarily biology faculty from two- and four-year institutions throughout their respective regions. They look for scientists who are interested in improving their teaching effectiveness and student learning, especially in introductory courses. "Everyone brings different teaching experiences, and those who come are committed to students and want to do something, thus they advance their practice quickly when they go home," Ebert-May says.

Field station teams host workshops for five institutional teams, and evaluations are conducted at the beginning of the project and after each workshop. Members of the institutional teams bring their own course and curriculum materials to the workshops, devise ways to improve them with the help of their field station team, and take the ideas back to their classrooms to see what works. The assessment data collected, which are as important as the innovative techniques, are used to evaluate whether student learning improves with the changes.

The success of FIRST is that it not only has an impact on the scientists who get involved, but it also has a ripple effect at their home institutions. This year over 150 faculty and future faculty (graduate and postdoctoral students) will be involved in the FIRST II project. Preliminary data from FIRST I demonstrate that participating faculty incorporated more active, inquiry-based approaches in their courses. However, evaluating the impact of FIRST II on so many different courses and academic programs presents a real challenge. Ebert-May and Hodder plan to focus on three dimensions: improvement of student learning, change in faculty teaching practice, and support of FIRST outcomes by departments and institutions. At the faculty level, Hodder says, "we try to move everybody along on a continuum, so they all are teaching more effectively" after participating in FIRST. One indication of institutional-level change from FIRST I, she adds, is to look at who has proposed and received external funding for innovative educational projects. Faculty from four FIRST teams — Howard University, Murray State University, San Diego State University, and the University of Akron — received grants from the National Science Foundation for course, curriculum, and laboratory improvement and for graduate students interacting with K-12 teachers — all of which grew from involvement in FIRST.

What Ebert-May and Hodder are building is more long-term and systemic than an isolated series of workshops. Their intention with FIRST II is to foster change at all levels, so that excellent teaching improves learning by all students and earns the recognition and rewards it deserves. The hope is that teaching will become more than an ancillary activity in most scientists' careers, not a drain of energy but an investment of time as important as research. With its multilayer team-of-teams structure, FIRST II creates a network of scientists who support one another in implementing effective changes within institutions. "It takes real commitment from teams to make this work," Ebert-May says. "By building support for integrating research and teaching, we begin to influence the culture of science."

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