THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES SUMMER INSTITUTES
FOR UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION IN BIOLOGY
Introductory science courses at large universities in the United States serve as the portals that connect undergraduates to frontiers in research and scientific ways of thinking. An introductory undergraduate biology class might be the only exposure many students have to the life sciences, or to any of the sciences. It often serves as the best opportunity to interest students in a biomedical research or other life science career.
However, according to the 2003 NRC report, BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, teaching practices have not kept pace with advances in scientific research. Consequently, the gateway through which most students pass is antiquated, misrepresents the interdisciplinary, collaborative, evidence-based culture of science, and fails to implement current knowledge about how people learn. Bio2010 identified faculty development as a crucial component in improving undergraduate biology education. Therefore, the authoring Committee suggested the creation of a Summer Institute during which life sciences faculty would work to improve their educational skills by integrating current scientific research with new pedagogical approaches to create courses that actively engage students in the ways that scientists think.
One substantive result of this recommendation has been the development of the annual National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education in Biology.7 This unique Institute is designed to model the scientific teaching principles on which it is founded and draws on the expertise of both participants and presenters.
The Summer Institute has provided a venue each year for teams of faculty from primarily research-intensive universities to meet for five days of in-depth discussions, demonstrations, and working sessions on research-based approaches to undergraduate biology education. The idea is to generate the same atmosphere as a Cold Spring Harbor research course, but with the topic being issues in education rather than, for instance, phage genetics. Current research in effective practices in undergraduate science education, active learning, assessment, and diversity are woven through the week, creating a forum for participants to share ideas with each other and develop innovative instructional materials that they are expected to implement when they return to their own campuses.
Initiated with a pilot institute in 2003, the Summer Institute has convened each year during the last week of June on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The current target audiences have been faculty and academic leaders from universities where large classes, especially at the beginners’ level for both life sciences majors and for students with other career goals, provide significant impediments to reform. Some universities have sent a team of 2-3 people to one Institute. Others have sent multiple teams (consisting of different people each year) over two or more years. The Institute has been supported primarily through funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (through summer 2011) with additional support from Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement and the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund.
Participants are selected based upon a rigorous application process that is overseen by an NRC Committee. There is a particular emphasis on including pre-tenured as well as more
7 For additional information see http://academiessummerinstitute.org and Pfund et al. 2009 available at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/324/5926/470.