Michelle Withers’ first years of teaching were frustrating. “I had been trying to learn how to teach better, but I didn’t know what to do,” says Withers, now a biology professor at West Virginia University.
Then she went to the National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education in Biology, a week-long course that shows faculty better ways to teach. It changed her life. Withers was so excited by what she learned that she started her own local version of the training program. “I really drank the Kool-Aid,” she says.
Now the Summer Institute is expanding to allow more educators to learn the techniques behind successful teaching. What started as a single site in Wisconsin will include up to nine regional training centers across the country over the next five years, with the help of $3 million provided by HHMI. Four new training sites will start up this summer in New Haven, Seattle, Boulder, and Minneapolis.
“The Summer Institute is very successful, but at the rate it was going it would never reach enough faculty,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education. “With this expansion, we hope to greatly increase the number of faculty members who participate and bring what they learn back to their campuses. The scale of this effort is aimed at changing biology teaching across the country.”
The expanded Summer Institute will continue to use the National Academy of Sciences’ Bio2010 report as a touchstone. The report concluded that biology faculty needed to learn the science behind successful teaching. “People have a strong tendency to teach the way they were taught,” says Jo Handelsman at Yale University, who co-leads the Summer Institute with Bill Wood at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But we know that lectures are the worst way to teach if you care about student learning.”
At the Summer Institute, faculty learn how to incorporate active-learning techniques, including interactive projects and discussion groups with constant assessment. They also learn how to make it work in a large lecture-style classroom. Since 2004, 304 faculty and instructional staff members from 94 institutions have gone through the Summer Institute. Its graduates teach approximately 100,000 undergraduates each year.