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An Education Group for Innovation in Undergraduate Biology Education

Research Summary

Graham Walker’s HHMI Education Group has allowed him to develop new tools and curricula for undergraduate biology while training young research scientists to become educators. The group’s members participate in a variety of teaching and educational projects, and play leadership roles in the continuing development, dissemination, and assessment of the student-friendly biology digital learning tools StarBiochem, StarGenetics, and StarCellBio.

In 2002, during my first HHMI Professors grant period, I launched our HHMI Education Group. The group was modeled after my scientific research team where graduate students, postdocs, and instructors interested in education collaborated on designing, refining, implementing, and evaluating new tools and curricula for undergraduate biology. For example, my first Education Group developed the Biology Concept Framework (BCF), a hierarchical organization of biology concepts that groups related concepts and highlights relationships among concepts. The BCF can be use to clarify course goals and prioritize course content with the ultimate goal of enhancing understanding of enduring concepts in undergraduate biology courses.

Another key contribution of my first Education Group was the initiation of a successful collaboration that continues to this day with software developers in MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT) to develop StarBiochem, a freely-available, 3-dimensional protein viewer that enables students to learn key concepts in structural biology in an interactive manner. The development of StarBiochem laid the foundation for development of other innovative biology digital learning tools for use at MIT and around the world. Another indicator of the first Education Group's success is that former members of that group have gone on to assume leadership positions in education at other institutions.

With my second HHMI Professors grant, my first priority was to re-establish my HHMI Education Research group to train and support the development of the next generation of scientist-educators. My current Education Group consists of two core members, Lourdes Alemán and Alison Brauneis, who in addition to being PhD-trained scientists, have also received postdoctoral research training in biology education research. These two individuals have continued to spearhead the design, development, implementation, assessment, and dissemination of new educational innovations, as well the coordination of activities that help foster and support the development of scientist-educators beyond the MIT Biology Department.

To foster an education community at MIT and in the Boston area, my Education Group has hosted monthly meetings and seminars to share educational innovations, best practices, and research findings. These events are well attended and have attracted graduate students, postdocs, research scientists, educators, instructors, and faculty from a wide range of fields. Our current extended Education Group is made up of 216 members from 25 colleges and universities, including MIT, and 14 other educational institutions, companies and programs in the Boston area.

The two science-educators that constitute the core of the group have followed up on the successes of the first Education Group in developing innovative biology digital learning tools and associated curricula for use at MIT and beyond. All of the STAR (Software Tools for Academics and Researchers) are the result of a successful collaboration between MIT faculty, my core Education Group members, and software developers within OEIT. The suite of STAR biology software tools, which includes StarBiochem, StarGenetics, a genetics experiment simulator, and StarCellBio, a new cell and molecular biology experiment simulator under development, aims to enrich science education through the development, implementation, and assessment of biology educational digital tools and curricular materials that: (i) provide meaningful opportunities for students to design, perform, and analyze their own experiments through computer-generated simulations, (ii) expose students to the bounty of remarkable research data that is available to them in a manner that empowers their understanding, (iii) can be easily implemented in existing course curricula to enhance student learning during in-class active learning activities and/or during independent studies, and (iv) are freely and openly accessible to students worldwide. In fact, our two most established programs, StarBiochem and StarGenetics, have been widely accessed online by almost 500,000 unique users from 225 countries.

We are developing, implementing, and assessing a new cell and molecular biology experiment simulator, with support from the National Science Foundation, that will be finalized in late 2014. The simulator, called StarCellBio, is designed to enrich student learning and strengthen student understanding of the principles of experimental biology by enabling students to design, perform, and analyze their own cell and molecular simulated experiments. In StarCellBio, students can design and set up their own experiments and analyze their samples using three different experimental techniques: western blotting, flow cytometry, and microscopy.

To support the implementation and adaptation of these innovative biology tools beyond MIT, we have designed and made available curriculum for undergraduate and high school biology classrooms. For example, we have developed a set of exercises and instructor resources, which will be available in 2014 on the StarGenetics website. They are designed specifically for the high school and undergraduate introductory biology audience using the Mendel’s peas visualizer in StarGenetics. Recently, as part of our work with the NSF-funded MIT-Haiti Initiative, we translated the user interfaces of StarBiochem and StarGenetics into Haitian Creole so that StarBiochem and StarGenetics can be used in resource-limited Haitian classrooms. Translation of StarBiochem and StarGenetics led to the development of a translation process that is streamlined and accessible to others. StarGenetics has also been translated into Portuguese using this newly developed translation process. We plan to continue translating our tools, including StarCellBio, into additional languages through crowdsourcing.

We are now focusing our efforts on the incorporation of our online learning tools within online course platforms, such as the MITx platform. This effort will allow unique opportunities to collect data on the nature of student understanding of seminal biological concepts, including common student misconceptions and difficulties, and will also allow us to investigate correlations between behaviors within the tools and online courses, which we anticipate will become the basis of a long-term research agenda.

Research in the Walker Lab

Walker’s research has contributed to our current understanding of how cells respond to DNA damage and to the discovery of translesion synthesis (TLS) DNA polymerases. His recent work on TLS DNA polymerases has suggested a novel strategy for improving chemotherapy and has also unexpectedly yielded new insights into the basis of antibiotic lethality. Walker’s research on the Rhizobium-legume symbiosis has not only offered insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying the symbiosis but has also resulted in the discovery of the missing step in vitamin B12 biosynthesis and the identification of an extremely highly conserved RNase with several critical roles in RNA metabolism.

Last updated May 2014

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Molecular Biology