ASCB 2012: perspective from the education side part 2

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a picture showing an abacus

An abacus- as relevant to today’s math as some of the classical genetics experiments to bioinformatics

My itinerary of the ASCB conference was guided by the Education string, which spread across Sunday and Monday. There were talks and symposia for K-12, undergrad, and graduate education. The main poster session was on Monday.

By the way- the website for the Meeting is extremely well organized, with links to abstracts, program pages, videos, and other goodies.

Among the most memorable talks from an undergrad perspective was David Botstein’s “Integrated introductory science curriculum for undergraduates at Princeton.”  He started with the observation that education of biologists have become less quantitative over the past years (decades?), and many biologists lack the math and computer science background very much needed for current biological research. (The importance of physics was a recurring theme in the meeting, illustrated by the variety of high level microscopy techniques).  To address that, Princeton developed an Integrated science curriculum. Basically, it covers a variety of fundamental topics in biology, math, physics, chemistry, and computer science; which should provide undergrads with a solid foundation to embark on any scientific discipline. One of the golden nuggets I took from his talk was the “Just in time principle,” meaning only teach what is needed at the moment to avoid student confusion. He did mention how difficult was to develop the curriculum to make it so streamlined. The other was the importance to teach only “fundamental,” not “traditional” topics, and as example mentioned some of the classic molecular biology experiments from the 1950s.  And one that really hit home was the comment ‘it is crazy to teach statistics without computers.” In fact, I have taught some statistics without computers- but quickly incorporated programs as it felt, in fact, that it did not make sense to show students how statistics is done in the real world.

Now I want to make it clear that he did not deem useless to teach the history of science experiments in general, but in the case of this particular compressed curriculum.

Another beauty of this curriculum is that computer programming is taught from day 1, including Java and Mathlab. These are very useful tools, and students feel empowered; not to mention that those tools help them to find internships or even jobs.

The next presentation was from Stanford, “Beyond the cookbook: a rigorous, research-based lab course for all.” The Bio44 lab course by Tim Stearns and his team used p53 as an attractive target for student research: to identify mutant alleles of p53 in tumors and figure out what is wrong with them. The presentation started with their goal: to offer a lab course with real experiments, leading edge tools, and modern technology. The techniques used were quite impressive for a student lab: from bioinformatics to western blots including GFP tagging. And the student evaluations made the audience chuckle- some students expressed their frustration at the amount of troubleshooting and repetition that had to be done for success- something scientists are very familiar with.

A common theme of both presentations was the amount of resources and funding needed for such programs and courses. Throughout the education string of the conference it was evident that without generous funding by (among others) the Howard Hughes Institute, NSF, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, many educational innovations could not have happened.

However, there are options open to less privileged institutions….coming in part 3.

ASCB 2012: perspective from the education side part 1

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A poster imitating the Hinger Games at ASCB2012

I was reading The hunger games during the conference, so this poster made me chuckle.

I confess this is my first American Society of Cell Biology meeting, and very probably the last also. It was not my kind of meeting even when I was involved with Cell Biology research: it was just too broad, too “basic;” and more specialized meetings were preferred- cancer, immunology, etc.
My plan this year was to aim at an education conference or a science conference with a strong educational angle (ASM CUE comes to my mind)- am still hoping for it! But it just happened that one of my collaborators at Carnegie-Mellon University’s OLI project,  Anya Goodman, was presenting there, and she proposed a poster about our preliminary data. Thanks to her diligence the abstract was submitted in time, and got accepted. The meeting being in San Francisco, I was able (and happy) to attend.
As anybody attending a research conference knows, a lot of prep work and planning helps getting things done. My goals were to learn about any major cell biology paradigm changes but mainly to connect with other educators involved in science and particularly biology education. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole education string.
Another aspect that surprised me was the openness to non-scientists. The keynote address was open to the general public (upon registration), and the speakers: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Apple and Genentech chairman Arthur Levinson tailored their talks to appeal to both scientists and non-scientists, a difficult feat in which the former was more successful. Chu combined overarching visions with witty humor, explanations of scientific findings with inspirational advice, and achieved a general feeling of elation of having somebody so accomplished and smart in our Administration. I just discovered his talk has been uploaded to youtube.
On the other hand, Levinson’s talk went deeper and was more technical; and while his presentation was exciting to those in the cancer field, it sounded a bit too promotional of their new product. Which is understandable. But maybe not the most appropriate for a keynote speech.
There was a whole corner dedicated to educational resources, of which I snapped up many (and they are still in my to-be-sorted pile), but what was encouraging was the number of books, pamphlets, and talks dedicated to grad students and postdocs who may be considering education as a career path. That this included mainly teaching institutions (even community colleges) is in indication of the reality check of scientific organizations.  In fact, I was very pleased to see at any of the education-related events many students, not only professors.

In the next part (parts?) I will address some of the most memorable talks/presentations I attended.

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