Experiment Seeks to Create Interdisciplinary Curricula

Four universities will collaborate to make easily-implemented interdisciplinary science courses.

Most people associate experiments in science with test tubes and beakers. However, HHMI is trying a new type of science experiment—one that involves education. The Institute has brought together an expert in student evaluation with faculty members from four universities with one goal in mind: to create interdisciplinary science courses easily implemented in any undergraduate classroom.

The four-year, $1.8 million National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education, or NEXUS, involves Purdue University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Maryland, College Park; and the University of Miami. Each is focusing on a specific topic, with the aim of creating undergraduate educational modules that integrate biology with physics, math, and chemistry (see box). The teams are pilot launching their modules this fall and hope to have them ready to share with other institutions in a few years.

“We really believe in the word ‘experiment,’ and here is an experiment that is being run on a larger scale than one discipline or one institution,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education.

The four schools are working together to ensure that the modules meet common goals and that the courses are designed and measured in a unified way. They are developing assessments that move beyond just testing students on factual knowledge to assess their ability to demonstrate scientific competencies and apply their knowledge to complex problems.

HHMI has hired David Hanauer, an evaluation specialist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to help coordinate the teams’ assessment work and develop their capacity to tackle competency-based assessment approaches. This past summer, Hanauer led a two-day workshop, with representatives from the four institutions in attendance, to discuss strategy for assessment development.

The NEXUS Team

Purdue University is revising its introductory chemistry curriculum to include more biological chemistry, with a focus on active learning approaches.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is infusing mathematical modeling into its introductory biology course, including quantitative reasoning skills and mathematical approaches to understand biological processes and living systems.

The University of Maryland, College Park, is revising its introductory physics course for biology majors to present physics concepts in a biological context.

The University of Miami is developing biomedical case studies that will challenge students to use scientific inquiry to analyze the biology, physics, chemistry, and math involved in human health and disease.

The Institute has appointed a steering committee and an interdisciplinary advisory board of leaders in education reform. In the coming months, many steering committee members will present the NEXUS project at various educational conferences to expand its visibility and to solicit feedback.

“There are many conversations heading in the same direction, addressing how young people should be trained to participate in biomedicine and medical practice in the future,” says Cynthia Bauerle, who oversees the NEXUS project and is a senior program officer in HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate program. The hope is that NEXUS will be a hub for that broader national conversation.