Elizabeth Jones' new friend is going to help her teach genetics. The friend is a cognitive tutor, computer software that guides students through the problem-solving process that takes genetics from abstract theory into practice.
"I have been teaching genetics for 30 years," says Jones, a research geneticist who studies the cellular pathways in yeast that proteins follow to reach their proper destination, "and that entire time, I have been trying to find useful teaching tools to help students learn to solve genetics problems." Interactive tutoring is the most effective approach, but Jones, the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences, head of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Biological Sciences and director of HHMI's undergraduate grant there, doesn't have the time or person-power to provide one-on-one tutoring to every undergraduate.
While studying how students learn, investigators in the Psychology Department at Carnegie Mellon developed the cognitive tutor to help teach mathematics to middle and high school students and to test their models of learning. Today's students, who cut their teeth on computer games, not only love the tutor; they learn the material three times faster and do much better on tests.
Since genetics is a quantitative, logic-based and problem-based science, Jones thought that such a computer tutor might help her undergraduates too. So she gave the math tutor a try. "I was absolutely astounded," she says. "Most tutoring software gives students a problem and an answer. The cognitive tutor provides a starting point and multiple routes to the end point. It immediately notifies you of a mistake in the process, and if you can't correct it, you can ask for progressively revealing hints. You always get to solve the problem correctly, and you end up understanding each step you've taken."
As an HHMI Professor, Jones is developing a cognitive tutor for the 70-90 juniors in her undergraduate genetics courses. "There is a crying need for something like this," she says. Approximately 100,000 college students who take genetics nationwide each year, as well as 16,300 medical students, could benefit.
Jones realizes that she is a role model for women in the sciences. Originally a chemistry major, she found "less than a warm welcome for women in chemistry." She needed to work to put herself through the University of Washington and got a job in a geneticist's lab. "He and his wife gave me a lot of personal attention," she recalls. "I also discovered that I was a much better geneticist than I was a chemist."
As a research scientist, Jones has always made time to give the kind of mentoring that made such a difference to her as an undergraduate. At Carnegie Mellon, she's found a research home where teaching is valued and rewarded. "You won't get tenure here if you don't teach well, just as you won't get tenure if you don't do outstanding research," she says.