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National Workshop for Undergraduate Biology Teachers

Anil Kumar Challa

This article was co-authored by Asim Auti

The first National Workshop for Undergraduate Biology Teachers was jointly organized by Abasaheb Garware College and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune from 11 to 14 January, 2012, and was funded by the Department of Science and Technology (Ministry of Science and Technology, Govt. of India) under its INSPIRE program1. The workshop was loosely modeled after the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes (HHMI) supported National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education in Biology2, which have been successfully running in the United States for about ten years now3.


The conception and organization of the Pune workshop involved Dr. William Wood (University of Colorado, Boulder) who Chairs the Executive Committee of the National Academies Summer Institutes, Dr. Robin Wright (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis), a member of the same committee, Dr. Teri Balser (University of Florida, Gainesville) who was the Director of the Institute for Cross-College Biology Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Dr. Anil Kumar Challa (Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), Dr. L S Shashidhara (Coordinator Biology, IISER, Pune), Dr. Milind Watve (IISER, Pune), Dr. K P Mohanan (IISER, Pune), Dr. Maithili Jog (previously at MES Abasaheb Garware College, Pune; currently at Symbiosis International University, Pune) and Mr. Asim Auti (MES Abasaheb Garware College, Pune).


The larger goal of the workshop was to create a national initiative to transform biology education at the B.Sc. level in University affiliated colleges by improving classroom teaching & learning. One of the expressed aims of the workshop was to nurture a new generation of teachers by introducing them to a scientific approach to teaching that reflects the way active scientists/researchers function. The workshop was intended to bring teachers across sub-disciplines in biology, and therefore focused more on orienting teachers towards inquiry based teaching in classrooms and laboratories; help teachers in developing students’ capacity to build a scientific temper and to actively engage in science; discuss the latest and efficient methods of teaching; encourage teachers to devise their own tools and modules for their students.

A workshop announcement was sent out to several small colleges across India in November 2011 and attracted over 250 applications. The applicants were asked to write a short teaching statement along with their academic interests, based on which a final group of 50 teachers was selected, representing 12 States and 28 cities. The group comprised both new and experienced teachers who teach courses in traditional subjects like botany and zoology, and ‘modern’ subjects like biochemistry, molecular biology and biotechnology.

Dr. Mohanan initiated a few pre-workshop activities on an online discussion forum for the participants. The main goals of these activities were to help the participants get familiar with each other and engage them with a set of tasks that enable them to think about different aspects of education. Most participants enthusiastically took part in these pre-workshop activities.

The workshop began on 11 January, in the afternoon, with informal introductions followed by group interactions. The first day ended with a session on how to encourage critical thinking among students was conducted by Dr. Mohanan.

Day two of the workshop was embedded into an ongoing INSPIRE workshop for XI standard students from various schools in and around Pune with the active guidance of Dr L S Shashidhara. A series of lectures by Dr. T. Ramasami (Secretary, DST, India), Dr. Michael Bishop (Nobel Laureate, University of California, San Francisco, USA), Dr. Lalita Ramakrishnan (University of Washington, Seattle), Dr. Ron Vale (University of California, San Francisco, USA), and Dr. Venki Ramakrishnan (Nobel Laureate, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Medical Research Council, Cambridge, UK) were moderated by Dr L S Shashidhara (Coordinator Biology, IISER). Day two ended with a talk by Dr. Milind Watve about his ‘Katta’4 method of motivating students to think creatively in science.

Day three started with a session on “Aligning Educational Goals and Educational Means” (Mohanan) followed by sessions on Backward Design (Wood), Assessments (Wright) and Active Learning (Balser). Two short presentations on student projects were made at the end of the formal sessions. Four students from Garware College presented their experiences with an extra-curriculuar book reading project. Dr.Dona Joseph (Vivekananda College, Mumbai) showcased a humorous skit (by playing a recorded video) on microbial diversity she developed for students.

‘N-Game’, a board game to introduce and engage players in the nitrogen cycle was introduced by Dr.Balser5. The workshop participants played the game late into the night. As stated by one of the groups, “the N-game was complex and challenging, but it was also very enjoyable and educational; each of us learned several nuances about the Nitrogen cycle.”

The last day began with a presentation on Clickers (Wood) as a tool to engage students in large classrooms and for effective formative assessment. The rest of the morning was spent in preparations for presentations by participants. The final, post-lunch, session was the grand finale when the participants presented their ‘Teachable Units’ that they progressively developed in teams, from Day 1 of the workshop. Through discussions, each group chose a learning goal/outcome/objective based on a key concept in biology, created an active learning strategy to teach that concept and came up with an assessment tool to find out if the goal/outcome/objective was reached. Each presentation ended with questions from the rest of the groups. The formal sessions were closed with these presentations.

Informal feedback from the participants was solicited as part of the valedictory session. The participants unanimously expressed that the workshop was an important event that created a networking opportunity allowing interactions between undergraduate biology teachers from different parts of the country, discussions on important issues in undergraduate biology education, and exposure to a variety of new perspectives in teaching. There was an overwhelming support to organize future ‘National Workshops’ every year.

The enthusiasm, energy and commitment of many undergraduate biology teachers provided the necessary impetus to make the first National Workshop happen. The expressed need and distinct value of this first workshop in the professional development of college teachers is the principal motivation to make the National Workshops the platform for dialogue and action towards improving undergraduate biology education in India.

References:

[1] Funds for international travel were raised from private sources in the United States of America..

[2] http://www.academiessummerinstitute.org/

[3] Pfund et al. (2009) Science Vol. 324 no. 5926 pp. 470-471

[4] The announcement could not be sent to every small college in India since there is no comprehensive and formal database of the 26000 colleges. A proposal to connect biology teachers from all these colleges has been made and modest efforts are in progress, as mentioned by Dr. MC Arunan (http://www.indiabioscience.org/node/175).

[5] The ‘Science Katta’ at Pune: catching them young: http://indiabioscience.org/node/24

[6] http://thengame.org/