Challenging Their Brains

CALS soil scientist Teresa Balser remembers the “aha moment” when she first decided to change her teaching style—a departure that, more than anything, led to her recently being named U.S. Professor of the Year, an award that recognizes excellence in undergraduate teaching. The honor was bestowed by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

A couple of years into her assistant professorship, Balser realized her soil biology lectures were designed for the small percentage of students following in her footsteps: aspiring academics who love learning for learning’s sake. “So I reframed the material,” says Balser, who studies soil microbes’ contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because I love it,’ I started saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because you need to learn it, and here’s why.’”

To revamp her course, Balser turned to an obvious but often overlooked resource for advice: her own students. She conducted what she calls a “mid-course correction” survey, soliciting feedback on what was and wasn’t working for them. She also dug into pedagogical literature, searching for ways to ramp up student engagement in the classroom.

Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because I love it,’ I started saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because you need to learn it, and here’s why.’

What emerged was an approach known as active learning. Compared to the typical lecture-and-quiz format found in most college classrooms, active learning is about getting students involved—having them answer questions, participate in small-group discussions, interact with guest lecturers and work on hands-on projects. To this day, Balser continues to survey her students on a regular basis and to test out new teaching techniques, including cutting-edge educational technologies.

Balser’s enthusiasm for biology education reaches far beyond her own classrooms. She’s one of the founders of a new national education research group in biology. And on campus, Balser is director of the Institute for Cross-College Biology Education (ICBE), which serves as the administrative home of the university’s biology major. With about 6,000 undergraduates in 31 biology-related major programs, it is the largest, most complex area of study on campus.

One of Balser’s main goals at ICBE is to help modernize the university’s Introduction to Biology course, a critical educational portal crossed by more than 4,500 aspiring scientists each year. “The way we teach biology has got to catch up with the way scientists do research. Students need to understand how chemistry, math, physics and engineering are all relevant to biological research,” says Balser. “But the way we teach them now, all of those subjects are taught separately, in different boxes.”

The overhauled biology course, as Balser and several key biology faculty imagine it, will feature a mix of labs, lectures, computer projects and—of course—active learning techniques.