It was the one of the very few moments in his life when he was truly speechless, says Malcolm Campbell. He was at the 2013 ASCB spring Council meeting in Washington, DC, seated next to fellow ASCB councilor David Botstein who had just won one of the new $3 million Breakthrough Awards in Life Sciences. Waiting for the meeting to come to order, Campbell, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and a leading proponent of research-driven reform in undergraduate biology education, congratulated Botstein on the award. Campbell recalls, “David said, ‘I want to give some money to MIT, Cold Spring Harbor, UCSF, and to you. I want to give you $100,000.’ And then the meeting started and that was it.” Campbell says he was so stunned that he has no memory of the first half hour of the Council agenda. The meeting and the day ran past without Campbell having another chance to pull Botstein aside. “So that night, I called my wife and I said, ‘I think this happened but I’m not sure’.” It had indeed happened.
Campbell first met Botstein through Campbell’s Genome Consortium for Active Teaching (GCAT), an audacious plan to take what was then the advanced technology of DNA microarrays into undergraduate biology classes by lowering the per chip cost through bulk orders. DNA chip technology had been pioneered by Pat Brown at Stanford, and when Campbell flew out to California to learn more, he met Brown’s close collaborator, Botstein, who later moved to Princeton. From the beginning, Botstein liked Campbell’s approach to shake up biology education. When he won the Breakthrough Prize, Botstein scrolled through his mental list of educational reformers and gave $100,000 each to three institutions—MIT, CHSL, and UCSF—and to one person, Malcolm Campbell. When Campbell finally reached Botstein to confirm what he thought he’d heard, Botstein’s only instruction was to spend it on what Campbell thought was most exciting in biology education.
Last month, Dr. Botstein’s $100,000 bought a textbook. His gift rescued a five-year project by Campbell and fellow Davidson College faculty members, applied mathematician Laurie Heyer and population biologist Chris Paradise—from oblivion. Integrating Concepts in Biology is not your ordinary 10-pound doorstop of a biology textbook. As conceived, it puts the data front and center so introductory students can construct their own knowledge. It explores five core concepts underpinning modern biology using an interactive learning approach and the manipulation of primary experimental data by students. Campbell et al went through a string of commercial text publishers, all of whom jumped ship as they toted up the costs. When the last prospective publisher cut and ran last January, Campbell looked at the Botstein gift and decided it was time to publish an e-book themselves.
The three authors hired a copy editor, an illustrator, and a copyright “wrangler” to round up reprint permissions, which proved to be the most expensive part of the entire project. Campbell was flabbergasted by the demands of some publishers to reprint a single figure. Many, however, were much more moderate in their demands and some downright gracious. Campbell emailed Matthew Meselson of the celebrated Meselson-Stahl experiment and had an immediate reply, giving permission gratis. Just getting an email from Matthew Meselson left Campbell in a euphoric state for days. Virtually anyone who walked past his office was hauled in to read it and news of the email ended up on the Campbell lab Facebook page.
The authors also had to find a suitable e-publication platform that could accommodate their data-driven, interactive vision. Last month, Integrating Concepts in Biology (ICB) was published on Trunity.com, as a digital textbook that can be “read” on a variety of devices from desktops to smart phones. You can buy it by the semester for $35 or two semester’s worth for $70. You can also buy chapters, “by the slice,” as Campbell describes it. “You can buy it by the chapter, sort of like pizza.” The flexibility allows an instructor to use ICB for one semester, the whole year, or just to set certain chapters for a class. Being web-based, it is easily corrected because the corrections “push out” to everyone who ever bought the book.
But the digital book’s key strength is its ability to push modern biology’s key concepts and “competencies,” by having students grapple directly with the experiments and data. For example, Heyer developed an Excel spreadsheet that allows students to generate data similar to Gregor Mendel’s from his pea plant experiments. Campbell says that later critics grumbled that the long dead monk fudged his results on the emergence of recessive traits. “He was accused of fabricating his data. His numbers were supposed to be too good,” he explains. With Heyer’s spreadsheet, students can run and rerun Mendel’s experiments in larger or smaller sets, guiding them toward a real understanding of probability analysis as well as an appreciation of Mendel’s experimental strategy. “His numbers are within normal random distribution,” says Campbell. “By having grown a lot of peas, he was going to get it.” Having students discover for themselves how key concepts play out in biology is the whole point of the integrative approach, according to Campbell. “As opposed to us telling them, students discover it.”
Says Campbell, “If David had not given me this money, all of our effort would have gone away. Now we can reach faculty who want to bring some of the excitement of discovery back to their introductory courses.”