Current calls to reform biology instruction, whether through NGSS, AP Biology, or Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, ask biology educators to change their teaching practices so that more students successfully complete biology courses and become scientifically literate citizens. The reforms mentioned in these documents often include focusing on the depth of content vs. breadth, understanding scientific practices, and enhancing scientific skills. Not surprisingly, recognition of these important aspects of biology instruction is not new.
While reviewing some of the earliest volumes of The American Biology Teacher, first published in 1938, I found that the first three volumes address the same considerations that we have today. In the first volume, Oscar Riddle from the Carnegie Institution wrote that “a citizenship acquainted with the principles and subject matter of the life sciences is vital to our national welfare” and that “new means should be found for supplying to our people the more and better biology teaching to which they are entitled.” As early as 1938 and likely even earlier, biology instructors were concerned about teaching science in ways that reached all citizens. In the next volume, D. F. Miller from Ohio State University reminds us: “It is essential that the public be aware of what is true and reliable and be able to distinguish between this and rank propaganda.” He is pointing to the need to understand how science works, just as we discuss today. Commentary in volume 3 opens with this statement from a school administrator: “You Biology teachers try to cover too much ground, and as consequence do not cover anything thoroughly,” thus addressing the age-old depth vs. breadth issue.
Our fellow biology educators believed that the best way to address these issues was to get teachers to share their best practices, either in person or in a journal dedicated to teaching biology. As the editor of our first edition, published more than 80 years ago, wrote: “Some of the problems existing are what should be taught, what is the best method of presenting that material, and the various devices for presentation. The journal should help to solve these problems.” Thus, in 1938, NABT and ABT were conceived to address these concerns.
Jump ahead to 2020, and we are still working on the same issues and still looking for the best ways to emphasize depth vs. breadth and teach scientific process and skills in order to develop scientifically literate citizens. While the problems have not changed, we have come up with new ways to address them.
A significant change in the approach to reform came with the purposeful inclusion of administrators in the process of change. In 1938, the administrator quoted above admonished biology teachers for wanting to cover too much information, writing that “you biology teachers need to talk to each other,” placing the responsibility for change solely on the teachers. In 2012, the three largest research funding agencies – NSF, HHMI, and NIGMS/NIH – got together to discuss the science education recommendations of Vision and Change and concluded that if real reform was going to happen, administrators would need play a vital role. They helped jump start this process by forming PULSE, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education, an organization made up of life science deans and department chairs. PULSE Fellows work with biology departments to encourage systemic change.
One of the most dramatic changes is the inclusion of both undergraduates and high school students in authentic research through projects like HHMI's SEAPHAGES Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison's Tiny Earth Project, and Tufts' PARE project, along with many independent endeavors found in the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) network.
Thousands of high school and college students now play a role in scientific discovery and, in doing so, gain a greater understanding of the process of science. In 1938, biologists recognized that “it is the business of the teachers of biological subjects to interpret science to the public and to stimulate a general interest and understanding of what progress in biological research means in everyday life.” Yet they may never have envisioned a time when actual research would be performed by high school and undergraduate students.
A deeper understanding of the process of science also comes from the integration of science skills with science content. NABT's Introductory Biology Task Force is currently working with teachers across the education spectrum to identify common scientific practices and develop shared resources to help instructors integrate and scaffold scientific skills with content. This may also help address the depth vs. breadth issue.
NABT and this journal were conceived in 1938 to address these issues and to meet the future needs of biology teachers. In the second issue, the editors wrote: “From teachers scattered throughout the nation comes the expression of a twofold desire. ‘How can we improve the quality of our own classroom teaching?’ and ‘What can we do in our locality to improve the general status of our teachers of biological subjects?’ ” Our journal, conference, and award programs are here to serve you and continue to provide a means for biology educators at all levels to share their knowledge and expertise and to be recognized for their best practices. Thank you for being NABT members and for helping us address the issues in biology education. I look forward to serving as your president.