Graham Walker knew the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was different. But he was still surprised when he arrived for a job interview in Cambridge in 1975 to discover that MIT was so serious about teaching undergraduates. "Honestly, I was so excited at the end of that first day that I couldn't sleep," he remembers. Walker's love of teaching had not been much of a factor in his previous interviews, but at MIT he thought he could talk about his interests. "I felt like a lucky star had hit me on the head."
Walker started his teaching career by guiding MIT students through introductory lab courses and then switched to teaching advanced undergraduate research labs. "Lab courses were where I learned to teach because that's where I began to understand what students don't know about biology," Walker recalls. Now he leads a large introductory biology course once taught by Nobel Prize winner Salvador Luria.
Along the way, Walker realized that something important was missing in science education: research. "I thought, 'Why don't I form an education group that's modeled after a lab research group?'" In 2002, with help from his HHMI professor funding, Walker hired three postdoctoral students to join a team focused on science education research.
The group held regular lab meetings that were open to the MIT community, and soon dozens of faculty and graduate students were attending regularly. They talked about ways to make teaching easier and more accessible at all levels. Those discussions resulted in a wave of projects, including a "teaching toolkit" for MIT teachers and graduate students, a curriculum for high school field trips that stressed the use of primary literature and evidence-based teaching methods, and a strategy for organizing and prioritizing the key ideas in a biology curriculum.
The research group also brainstormed which biology concepts were important to modern science but hard to convey to students. One important topic was how to get students to understand the three-dimensional structure of proteins using "protein viewers," sophisticated molecular visualization engines that help scientists see how proteins are folded and how they work inside cells. Most protein viewer programs were too sophisticated for beginners but Walker believed that "playing with a protein" was exactly what new students needed to grasp how molecular biology works. At first, Walker tried unleashing his first-year students on an advanced protein viewer by providing elaborate instructions. "That was a disaster," he recalls. Creating a simpler interface for an existing viewer proved to be too hard to implement. Then, one attendee at the education group meeting, Chuck Schubert of MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, suggested that they build their own protein viewer with a custom interface that was based on the principles of protein structure the students learned in introductory biology courses. That became StarBiochem.
Released in 2006, StarBiochem is a powerful protein viewer with a simple interface that has been used by more than 3,000 undergraduates and high school students in classes and accessed online more than 15,000 times by students and teachers from 71 countries. StarBiochem's success led to StarGenetics, an interactive simulator that models genetic crosses, and plans to build StarCellBio, a simulator for cell biology experiments.
With his new HHMI professor grant, Walker wants to reestablish his science education group with two postdoctoral students interested in science education. Among the projects he wants to tackle is understanding and better using videotaped lectures, which could have important implications for online teaching and for large lecture classes. Walker's own introductory biology course went online in 2006 and has been viewed 400,000 times on MIT's OpenCourseWare web site and YouTube and downloaded 50,000 times through iTunes. Between a quarter and a third of his 198,000 YouTube viewers watched the entire series. Walker wants to understand why. "I don't think you download a lecture series by accident," he says.