December 5, 2011

Ratcheting up teaching of sciences

Daylong session will gather experts to share ideas

Early in 2012, science education will get its day—and then some.

A group of nationally renowned science education leaders will speak at Johns Hopkins next month at the first institutionwide Symposium on Teaching Excellence in the Sciences.

The symposium seeks to advance the university’s Gateway Sciences Initiative, a yearlong effort launched this summer to promote wider adoption of successful teaching techniques already in use and to encourage the development of innovative new approaches to learning.

Lloyd B. Minor, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, spearheaded the effort that seeks to augment, enhance, rejigger and, in some cases, reinvent foundation science courses at Johns Hopkins.

The symposium is designed to demonstrate the university’s commitment to promoting significant, positive improvement in gateway science education, and encourage innovation in course, program or curricular design. Participants will gain an understanding of how students learn and what excites their minds, according to the symposium’s organizers.

The event, which is open to all faculty, students and staff, will feature keynote talks, discussions, presentations and interactive workshops to highlight pedagogical priorities at Johns Hopkins. It will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20, in Hodson Hall on the Homewood campus.

The symposium will also include a poster session to spotlight the recipients of the inaugural Gateway Sciences Initiative grants, to be announced later this month. The goal of the grant program is to identify and fund a set of pilot projects that will both improve current gateway courses and point the way to potentially larger changes in pedagogy, course and program design, and instructional methodologies.

Minor said that the symposium aims to energize and empower the university community to participate in this major endeavor.

“The Gateway Sciences Initiative has caused so much excitement among our faculty and students,” Minor said. “It is a vitally important undertaking, and I am thrilled with the way it is bringing the campuses together and unleashing so many innovative ideas and creative ways to improve student learning.”

Scott Zeger, vice provost for research and a professor of biostatistics in the Bloomberg School, organized the symposium and has been coordinating much of the GIS efforts.

The four keynote speakers are Jo Handelsman from Yale, David Botstein from Princeton, Eric Mazur from Harvard and Freeman Hrabowski from UMBC.

Handelsman is a microbiologist and one of the pioneers in the field of metagenomics. While on the University of Wisconsin faculty, she was named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2002. She joined the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University in 2010 and became director of the Center for Scientific Teaching.

Handelsman also co-directs the National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology and was appointed co-chair of a working group by President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors in Science and Teaching to develop recommendations for the president about improving postsecondary STEM education.

She is nationally known for her efforts to improve science education and increase the participation of women and minorities in science at the university level. She is co-author of two books about teaching, Entering Mentoring (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005) and Scientific Teaching (W.H. Freeman, 2006). In 2011, she received the U.S. Presidential Award forExcellence in Science Mentoring.

In her talk at Johns Hopkins, Handelsman will discuss national trends in science education addressed in the forthcoming report from the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Teaching, with special emphasis on retaining students in science majors.

Botstein has made fundamental contributions to modern genetics, including the discovery of many yeast and bacterial genes and the establishment of key techniques that are commonly used today. Following faculty appointments at MIT and Stanford, he joined Princeton University in 2003 to serve as director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and as the Anthony B. Evnin Professor of Genomics. At Princeton, Botstein has developed a new interdisciplinary science curriculum for students intending to pursue careers in scientific fields, based on the expectation that science in the future will span the classical disciplines. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

The topic of Botstein’s talk will be the shortcomings of medical school entrance requirements and how they impact undergraduate science education.

Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University, is an internationally renowned scientist in the field of optical physics. In 1990, he began developing peer instruction, an interactive method for teaching large lecture courses. Peer instruction is a process that makes students collaboratively think through arguments being developed during lectures, and focuses their attention on underlying concepts. Lectures are interspersed with conceptual questions designed to expose common difficulties in understanding the material. In 1997, he published Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual (Benjamin Cummings).

Mazur’s talk is titled “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer: Strategies for Embedding Active Learning Into Large Lecture Courses.”

Hrabowski, the president of UMBC since 1992, has focused his research and publications on science and math education, with special emphasis on minority participation and performance. He has received numerous honors, including the prestigious McGraw Prize in Education and the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. In 2008, he was named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report. The Carnegie Corp. recently honored Hrabowski with a 2011 Academic Leadership Award.

A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Hrabowski holds honorary degrees from more than 20 institutions, including Johns Hopkins. He serves as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies, and universities and school systems nationally. He will talk about how to motivate teachers and students, and develop scientists of the future. (Hrabowski will also be the keynote speaker at a Dec. 15 program sponsored by Johns Hopkins’ Mentoring to Inspire Diversity in Science group to focus on underrepresented minority participation in science and technology. The event will be held from 9 to 10 a.m. in Hodson Hall.)

Earlier this summer, Provost Minor formed a 21-member faculty steering committee—co-chaired by Steven David, vice dean for undergraduate education and a professor of political science in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Marie Diener-West, director of the Master of Public Health program and professor of biostatistics in the Bloomberg School of Public Health—to lead and guide the Gateway Sciences Initiative. The committee was charged with working throughout the year to identify and promote best practices and to develop recommendations for a strategic approach to continuous improvement in gateway science courses in all divisions.

The initiative defines gateway science courses as those that establish the necessary fundamental knowledge base for subsequent or more specialized subject area study and research. These courses include introductory classes in biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, statistics, bioinformatics and others with a basic natural science or quantitative focus in fields such as medicine, nursing and public health.

For more information on the Gateway Sciences Initiative, and to register for the symposium, go to