Biology education researcher Mary Pat Wenderoth named 2019 Bruce Alberts award winner

Mary Pat Wenderoth, a Principal Lecturer in biology at the University of Washington, has been named the 2019 winner of ASCB’s Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education. The award honors an individual who has demonstrated innovative and sustained contributions to science education. She will receive the award at the 2019 ASCB|EMBO Meeting in Washington, DC, this December, where she will also present a lecture.

Malcolm Campbell, the Herman Brown Professor of Biology and Director of the James G. Martin Genomics Program at Davidson University, wrote in his nomination letter that Wenderoth should be lauded as a research scholar, even beyond her outstanding skills as a biology lecturer, a job title that requires no burden of research. Erin Dolan, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Georgia, Athens, and co-chair of the ASCB Education Committee, wrote in her nomination that Wenderoth’s founding of the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) contributed significantly to the discipline of biology education research. “The SABER annual meeting is the meeting for biology education research in the U.S.,” she said.

Mary Pat Wenderoth

Wenderoth was kind enough to respond to some questions about her impressive career as a life science educator and scholar. A condensed version of her response appears here; her complete response appears on the ASCB Post.

What was your experience with science teachers when you were growing up?

I have very fond memories of my high school biology teacher, Mr. Mudd. He came up with such creative ways to challenge us to think deeply about things and to try to solve logic problems. I remember him giving us a black box with four or five small rods sticking through the box. As you moved the box you could tell there were things inside. He challenged us to figure out they were and how they might be associated with the rods. We also, of course, dissected frogs and other animals and it was fascinating to “see inside” the animals and figure out how the parts fit together and did a job.

What do you think is the greatest challenge to life science education today, and how can we overcome it?

I think the greatest challenge for life science education research is gaining acceptance in academia. As life science education bridges two fields, education and a life science discipline, there are times I feel that we have a home in neither of them. The life science faculty sees us as education or social science and the education people see us as life science. Our value is that we focus on pedagogical content knowledge (among other topics). We know our discipline well and the challenges it presents to our students, and we are figuring out and testing out the most effective way to help students meet those challenges. I realize that all interdisciplinary workers feel like they have a foot in two or more worlds and are not accepted fully by any of those worlds.  It is just up to us to educate others about the value of our work.

For life science education, a big challenge is the enormity of the information that is out there. It will be impossible to keep up with teaching all this information to students. The challenge now is how to help students gain the skills they need to find and make sense of the information. We need to provide them with the structure they can use to filter and synthesize all the data and facts being discovered.

Also, we are seeing a greater diversity of students in our classroom. More students are gaining access to higher education, and this will lead to a more diverse workforce. As a biologist, I know that as diversity in an ecosystem increases so does the health and productivity of that system. The same is true for the workplace. A greater diversity of people brings a greater diversity of ideas and solutions. The challenge will be to meet the needs of this diverse population because higher education has been used to educating a more homogeneous and privileged population of students.

What led to the formation of SABER?

I would attend my professional meeting, the American Physiological Society, and there would only be two education talks, yet I paid so much money for registration, flight, hotel, etc. I thought other biology education researchers (BERs) might have the same experience, so I reached out to them. I was able to get a Research Coordination Networks in Undergraduate Biology Education incubator grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a small meeting of faculty to talk about forming a new society. The next year with the help of Rob Brooker at the University of Minnesota we pulled off the first meeting. We have been running the meetings ever since.  SABER is just what I imagined: two and a half days jam-packed with investigators presenting their latest finding on how to improve learning in undergraduate biology courses.

What’s next for you?

Maybe build a coalition across STEM discipline-based education research faculty. Students in STEM share many of the same issues such as problem-solving, interpreting graphs, designing experiments, etc. Each discipline has unique issues, but we have so many more in common. We could learn from each other beyond just reading the literature.

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.