WWU Professor Invited to Conference on Transforming Biology Education

By Nickol Enss ’10


Dr. Mary Spratt, Cox Distinguished Professor of Science at William Dr. Mary SprattWoods University and the 2008 Missouri Professor of the Year, was invited to take part in a conference this summer on transforming undergraduate biology education.


The invitational working conference was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The conference was held in Washington D.C. on behalf of the AAAS Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Advisory Board. About 500 undergraduate biology teachers from different colleges and universities were invited to attend the three-day workshop.


The main topic of discussion was how to improve educators’ teaching methods to better engage students in the field of science.


“We worked in small groups and discussed the basic topics of biology, the core themes that should be taught—cell biology, genetics, evolution and ecology— and how these core concepts need to be taught experimentally in the classroom to better engage students in research at all levels of their undergraduate education, even as freshmen and as non-science majors.”


Two notable speakers at the conference were Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor of the journal Science, and James Collins, the new director of the National Science Foundation, which focuses on science and mathematics. NSF funds approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by colleges and universities in America.


Spratt said one of the most significant things she got out of the conference was that science education should meet four main objectives: “teach students what scientists have learned about the world, what the nature of science is, the scientific processes and use of evidence and logic.”


She added, “Basically we haven’t done much except teach what scientists have learned about the world. We haven’t had students actively engaged in the process of science as we should have.  A memorable phrase that sums it up is that, ‘The science that we teach doesn’t reflect the science that we do.’” 


The conference called on educators to take public action. Collins’ slideshow included a video of President Obama speaking at the National Academy of Sciences annual meeting. In the slideshow, Obama says, “I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you. . .”


He also called for “… a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science…American students will move … from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade, for we know that the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow. And I don’t intend to have us out-educated. ” 


Spratt agreed and warned that, “We need to catch up with science and math education in other countries. A large part of good-paying jobs in the future will revolve around skills in science and math. We need to be teaching math and science so more students will want to go into these fields, on which so much of our personal and the planet’s well-being depends. Otherwise our work will be going to other countries.”


Biology is one of the fastest growing liberal arts majors at William Woods, and the WWU biology professors are implementing changes in the way they teach their classes.


“The biology faculty here is taking a much more experimental approach to our classes,” Spratt said. “Our classes involve designing and carrying out research as part of the curriculum. In the case of our genome project we have found that students can be very helpful with research. Students can learn to operate the equipment and develop new research data useful for publication.”


Over the past several years, Spratt and her students have worked to collect and analyze tick DNA from more than 55 Missouri counties. Last year she and WWU were also accepted into the Genomics Education Partnership, based at Washington University and the Genome Center in St. Louis. The project gives undergraduate students the opportunity to study genetic codes and genes in living organisms and to make substantive contributions to the published data in genomics. 


During the AAAS conference Spratt was given the opportunity to present a poster on the Genome Education Project.


Spratt said the conference emphasized that, “Science is a process of continual discovery,  and that by letting students be a part of the discovery process instead of continuing to teach science with the ‘old lecture-based format,’ students are more likely to become interested in pursuing a career in the sciences.”


Summing up her experience at the conference, Spratt said, “It was a real honor to be able to attend the conference and to be deeply involved with other undergrad biology professors that are passionate about teaching.”