Biology Department focuses on the 21st Century Student
A curriculum overhaul years in the making reimagines the way biology is taught at SCU
By Ally O’Connor ’20
Imagine a course where students are included as a critical part of the learning process, where two or more faculty are co-teaching, and students are exposed to a variety of skills and approaches throughout the quarter. All of that can be expected in the new curriculum developed by the Biology Department.
Inspired by a 2011 report by a group of biologists and biology educators that detailed a new vision for biology education in the 21st century, the Santa Clara University biology department decided to adapt and augment the curriculum so as to better prepare students for future careers in the field. The report, titled “Vision & Change in Undergraduate Biology Education,” called for an alteration in the way that biology had traditionally been taught, defined key concepts and skills that authors asserted all undergraduate biology majors should be expected to practice in their education, and challenged faculty to modify their curricula to incorporate student-centered teaching strategies.
After discussion, members of SCU’s biology department came to the conclusion that the introductory curriculum would be the best place to begin changing the student experience. As other universities also sought similar change in response to the report, SCU learned from the attempts of others. Moreover, according to Senior Lecturer Christelle Sabatier (Biology), the department “wanted to tap into the strengths that are unique to SCU in our new curriculum including the expertise of master teachers in our department, the research expertise of our faculty who study a broad range of fascinating questions from evolution and ecology to microbiology and molecular biology, and the diversity of students who take our introductory courses [including] biology, public health, neuroscience, chemistry, bioengineering and many other majors.”
Since the overhaul took place, students in the introductory sequence now take three new classes and three new labs, as opposed to the old five courses and two labs set up. In addition to this structural change, courses are now team-taught by at least two faculty members, thereby exposing students to a variety of skills and approaches all in one class. Since the first pilot course in 2016, small changes have been made to perfect the experience. Sabatier notes that the “entire biology department is committed to this endeavor and we are working hard to make sure that the introductory biology experience is meaningful, inclusive, and prepares the students for success beyond their first year of biology.”
In regards to the success of the overhaul, over 200 students have completed one full sequence of introductory biology courses and another 200+ are currently working through the sequence. Sabatier shares that the department is “collecting data to check on student learning gains and we are in the process of analyzing that now. The preliminary data is very encouraging.”
When asked about the best part of the alteration, Sabatier says that she “love[s] the way classes are set up so that students are a critical part of the learning process. We all learn together rather than one person telling a room full of students how things are. This has led us to discuss cutting edge experiments in biology that often are not introduced in introductory courses, but our students are already demonstrating sophisticated skills in data analysis, which we know will help them succeed in the future.”
Dec 3, 2019
Biology faculty Michelle McCully, Christelle Sabatier, Lianna Wong and BIOL1C teaching assistant Francesca Navarro conducting crucial to planning at Davenport Landing for the first BIOL1C class. Photograph by Edward Rooks.