The future of cell biology is germinating in classrooms today

What paves the path to a passion for science? For some, it may have been an inherent curiosity about the living world. For the authors of this column, and probably many of our readers, the switch was firmly turned on by an inspirational science teacher. These teachers sparked our interest and amplified our inherent love of science. In this column, we want to address how ASCB can and does support science education. Teaching can include hosting middle or high schoolers in the lab or instructing undergraduates, graduate students, or postdocs in the classroom and laboratory setting.

If we want to attract more bright minds to careers in biomedicine, we need to consider the teaching and learning landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic upended all levels of education. Very few faculty were prepared for the sudden move to remote instruction. Anyone who taught classes during this pandemic experienced the exhaustion of online instruction, and how difficult it can be to connect with students via Zoom. Meanwhile two- and four-year institutions are responding to increased financial challenges by gambling with the educational outcomes of potential scientists. Common responses to reduced budgets include increasing class sizes and minimizing laboratory instruction. Larger class sizes can result in higher dropout rates and a reduction in on-time degree completion.1 In an increasingly difficult teaching environment, how can ASCB and the community of cell biologists help science teachers inspire the next generation?

How can we expect to recruit new biologists if they are discouraged and marginalized? For many students, learning away from campus during the last 16 months amplified inequities. Students faced numerous challenges at home that hindered their science learning: slow or no internet access; no quiet place to work; family requests for childcare or other household duties; and financial hardships due to unemployed parents, which required students to seek employment. Student experiences in the classroom influences enrollment trends. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that undergraduate enrollment in 2020 fell about 4% at four-year institutions in the United States, and over 9% at community colleges. Meanwhile, the concerted response to the pandemic from scientists at all levels and across university laboratories, biotech, and pharma clearly demonstrated the transformative role science can play for society and brought hope during the pandemic crisis. Indeed, this promise may be one of the reasons why graduate student enrollment increased by about 4%.2 How can we tap the rewards of science and bring excitement to the classroom?

Promoting Inspired Solutions 

ASCB is a leading scientific organization and a global leader in science education. About 30% of ASCB members characterize themselves as educators. This means we have a wealth of educational expertise in our community. In 2020, the fastest areas of growth in ASCB membership were undergraduates (+146%), graduate students (+122%), and postdoctoral fellows (+62%). Since all ASCB members were students before they were scientists, this growth in younger ASCB members presents a unique opportunity to shape the future of science. In part due to the pandemic, many undergraduates have expressed more interest in biomedical sciences. At the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, 10–50% more students are choosing majors in biomedical sciences.3 

Many of you may be thinking, “I can barely keep up, how can I find time to improve my teaching?” However, if you see teaching as a long-term investment in the recruitment of graduate students and postdocs to research and education, it becomes evident why making time for better teaching is in our self-interest. Drawing diverse students to research and mentoring them will strengthen the scientific enterprise at large. Multiple studies have shown that diverse research teams are more successful.4 Indeed, ASCB Council member Andrew Campbell reported on Brown University’s successful efforts to increase diversity of its graduate programs.5 ASCB member David Asai and Cynthia Bauerle described how increasing diversity in science training programs will increase our talent pool and thus produce better science.6

How can instructional methods and inclusive classroom settings help retain diverse students? Many ASCB members contribute to open-access resources that can help improve teaching practices. ASCB publishes CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE; www.lifescied.org), a top biology education journal. ASCB is a founding partner with CourseSource (www.coursesource.org), which provides curbside pickup curricula ready to adopt and adapt with minimal effort. Some suggestions to improve teaching are simple to implement and won’t take extra time. For example, Elisabeth Schussler and colleagues reported in LSE how faculty classroom behavior affects students’ sense of feeling supported, which affects their learning.7 LSE Co-Editor-in-Chief Kimberly Tanner has shown the importance of encouraging student talking in class8 and the impact of “non-content instructor talk,”9, 10 the side comments teachers make in the classroom. For by-the-numbers instructional advice, Tanner published 21 ways to promote engagement and equity in the classroom.11 Deborah Allen and Tanner produced a list of strategies to increase student engagement in large-enrollment courses.12 Mays Imad described ways instructors can help students learn during times of trauma such as a pandemic or stressful classroom conditions.13 Bryan Dewsbury and Cynthia Brame collated an online repository of resources to help anyone incorporate inclusive teaching in their courses (https://lse.ascb.org/evidence-based-teaching-guides/inclusive-teaching).14 iBiology, founded by ASCB member and former ASCB president Ron Vale, has produced highly reliable information including a series of short videos that introduce the problems with traditional instruction and provide ready-to-use solutions. These “Scientific Teaching Series” (www.ibiology.org/playlists/scientific-teaching-series) videos feature many ASCB members who have already enhanced their own instruction and want to help you do the same.

Other ASCB members have addressed common problems we all face as educators. For example, Erin Dolan’s research team described the consequences of negative mentoring for doctoral students.15, 16 Erin Shortlidge and colleagues analyzed course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) and how experimental failures in teaching labs provide a more authentic research experience.17 Sara Brownell leads a team who provides pointers on overcoming students’ religion-based objections to learning evolution in our courses.18 ASCB has partnered with CourseSource to publish many peer-reviewed, open access cell biology course modules (www.coursesource.org/courses/cell- biology). With all these diverse approaches to improve instruction, ASCB wants to help educators achieve their aspirations with manageable effort and maximized outcomes. 

Learning to Train Future Scientists

Just because you have trained in academia for many years does not mean you will be an expert teacher. Indeed, many institutions fail miserably in teaching faculty how to teach and underestimate the time and effort new teachers must dedicate to learning the trade. This is especially true if new faculty had little previous teaching experience, or were trained outside the U.S. system. Just like we wouldn’t attempt a new line of research without first reading what others have done in the field, relying on what we experienced as a student, or what “feels right,” is unlikely to be an effective approach. Instead, we can learn from expert fellow ASCB members and adopt their evidence-based teaching practices (www.ascb.org/career-development/teaching). Depending on the activity, treat your first efforts as a pilot study and collect assessment data to inform your revisions.19 Everyone should expect some ups and downs with any new approach to teaching and see progress as a trendline with positive slope but not the best r2 value. 

The future of ASCB, and all scientific fields, is in the hands of today’s teachers educating tomorrow’s scientific leaders. What kind of experience do we want our next generation to have in their science courses? It pays off to take the time to learn from ASCB members who self-identify as educators and who publish in LSE and other journals. The ASCB virtual meeting in December (www.ascb.org/cellbio2021) will provide a perfect opportunity to connect with fellow ASCB members who are master teachers. Just like you reach out to experts for the latest research method, reach out to a teacher you admire and get advice. They would be happy to support your efforts in education. The power of ASCB is our community that is willing to share across specialized areas of expertise. 

ASCB members volunteer their time to serve on committees to help all members, especially younger ones (www.ascb.org/career-development). For example, the Minorities Affairs Committee (MAC) runs workshops to help early-career scientists write grants and transition into full-time positions (in and out of academia). Students and postdocs can attend ASCB’s annual Biotech Course (even during a pandemic). ASCB will match any member with a mentor who can give career advice or help with teaching practices (https://palm.ascb.org). The annual meeting offers many opportunities to learn from the best of the best. The MAC runs workshops during the annual meeting to help undergraduates considering graduate school, as well as senior graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty members. Newly elected ASCB Council member Veronica Segarra and her colleagues quantified how MAC programs have helped ASCB members professionally and increased ethnic diversity in cell biology.20 These workshops are open to ALL ASCB members. 

ASCB supports its members who self-organize a plethora of programs. The Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS) is run by and for graduate students and postdocs. This energetic committee leads over a dozen sessions during the annual meeting. The LGBTQ+ Committee offers support and mentoring for those who self-identify as members of that community, and their allies. The leaders of ASCB recognize how ASCB helped launch their own careers and they are eager to pass on the tradition to younger members. For this reason, ASCB is working hard to keep membership dues low for members who have most of their careers ahead of them. 

Your elected leaders of ASCB know the value of good educators and thank all teachers for their hard work, especially during the pandemic. None of us would be a scientist if we had bad teachers thwarting our professional ambitions. So, honor your former teachers by inspiring and recruiting the next generation. Simply put, ASCB values education as the foundation of good science.

References

1Bettinger EP, Long BT (2018). Mass instruction or higher learning? The impact of college class size on student retention and graduation. Education Finance and Policy 13, 97–118. doi: 10.1162/edfp_a_00221.

2Whitford E (March 11, 2021). Spring enrollment keeps slipping. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/03/11/colleges-continue-losing-undergraduate-enrollment-spring-even-graduate-enrollment.

3Hall R (2021). Have you been inspired by the pandemic to study science at university? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/25/have-you-been-inspired-by-the-pandemic-to-study-science-at-university.

4Powell K (2018). These labs are remarkably diverse—Here’s why they’re winning at science. Nature 558, 19–22. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05316-5.

5Thompson NL, Campbell AG (2013). Addressing the challenge of diversity in the graduate ranks: Good practices yield good outcomes. CBE—Life Sciences Education 12, 19–29. doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-04-0054.

6Asai D J, Bauerle C (2016). From HHMI: Doubling down on diversity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 15, fe6. doi: 10.1187/cbe.16-01-0018.

7Schussler EE, Weatherton M, Chen Musgrove MM, Brigati JR, England BJ (2021). Student perceptions of instructor supportiveness: What characteristics make a difference? CBE—Life Sciences Education 20, ar29. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-10-0238.

8Tanner KD (2009). Talking to learn: Why biology students should be talking in classrooms and how to make it happen. CBE—Life Sciences Education 8, 89–94. doi: 10.1187/cbe.09-03-0021.

9Seidel SB, Reggi AL, Schinske JN, Burrus LW, Tanner KD (2015).
Beyond the biology: A systematic investigation of noncontent instructor talk in an introductory biology course. CBE—Life Sciences Education 14, ar43. doi: 10.1187/cbe.15-03-0049.

10Harrison CD, Nguyen TA, Seidel SB, Escobedo AM, Hartman C, Lam K, … Tanner KD (2019). Investigating instructor talk in novel contexts: Widespread use, unexpected categories, and an emergent sampling strategy. CBE—Life Sciences Education 18, ar47. doi: 10.1187/cbe.18-10-0215.

11Tanner KD (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 12, 322–331. doi: 10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115.

12Allen D, Tanner K (2005). Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: Seven strategies, from the simple to complex. Cell Biology Education 4, 262–268. doi: 10.1187/cbe.05-08-0113.

13Imad M (June 3, 2020). Leveraging the neuroscience of now. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.

14Dewsbury B, Brame CJ (2019). Inclusive teaching. CBE—Life Sciences Education 18, fe2. doi: 10.1187/cbe.19-01-0021.

15Limeri L, Asif MZ, Bridges BH, Esparza D, Tuma T, Sanders D, … Dolan EL (2019). “Where’s my mentor?!” Characterizing negative mentoring experiences in undergraduate life science research. CBE—Life Sciences Education 18, ar61. doi: 10.1187/cbe.19-02-0036.

16Tuma TT, Adams JD, Hultquist BC, Dolan EL (2021). The dark side of development: A systems characterization of the negative mentoring experiences of doctoral students. CBE—Life Sciences Education 20, ar16. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-10-0231.

17Goodwin EC, Anokhin V, Gray MJ, Zajic DE, Podrabsky JE, Shortlidge EE (2021). Is this science? Students’ experiences of failure make a research-based course feel authentic. CBE—Life Sciences Education 20, ar10. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-07-0149.

18Barnes ME, Brownell SE (2017). A call to use cultural competence when teaching evolution to religious college students: Introducing religious cultural competence in evolution education (ReCCEE). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16, es4. doi: 10.1187/cbe.17-04-0062.

19Sundberg MD (2002). Assessing student learning. Cell Biology Education 1, 11–15. doi: 10.1187/cbe.02-03-0007.

20Segarra VA, Blatch S, Boyce M, Carrero-Martinez F, Aguilera RJ, Leibowitz MJ, … Edwards A (2020). Scientific societies advancing STEM workforce diversity: Lessons and outcomes from the Minorities Affairs Committee of the American Society for Cell Biology. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 21, 15. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v21i1.1941.

About the Author:


A. Malcolm Campbell is the Herman Brown Professor of Biology at Davidson College.
Ruth Lehmann is a developmental and cell biologist at the New York University School of Medicine, where she is the Director of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Professor of Cell Biology, and the Chair of the Department of Cell Biology.