With breakthroughs like the human genome project, the fundamentals of biology don’t seem so fundamental anymore. Yesterday’s textbook might be obsolete by the time it’s bound and distributed.
So teaching those fundamentals – the core of undergraduate biology studies – remains a challenge for universities. The good news, of course, is that Harvard boasts a faculty of the foremost researchers in the field.
And now, a new $1.6 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will ensure that their cutting-edge research finds its way into the lives and laboratories of undergraduates.
“Biology is changing at an enormously rapid rate. In terms of the life sciences, it’s the most dynamic field at the undergraduate level,” said Robert Lue Ph.D. ’95, director of undergraduate studies in the biological sciences and program director for the four-year grant. “It’s critical that the curriculum keep pace with the remarkable growth of the science.”
The HHMI grant, awarded to Harvard and 43 other research universities last month, supports programs that can become models for linking undergraduate teaching and research. This marks the third time Harvard has received the grant; previous grants have already been used to revise and improve undergraduate biology curriculum.
Harvard will use this round of funding, said Lue, “to implement the remarkable research expertise that our faculty has in the form of applied exercises.”
A new course on genomic instability, for example, draws on the cancer biology research of Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Matthew Michael, who recreates the cell division cycle inside a test tube without cells.
“Matt is going to be able to transfer the kinds of experiments that he does … to a course so that our students at the junior or senior level can actually do this hands-on,” said Lue.
But translating faculty research into introductory courses in biology and biochemical sciences is an expensive undertaking. The HHMI grant will offset the cost of new equipment and personnel.
The grant will also help the department tap the power of multimedia for undergraduate education.
“There’s a real gap in between what you can do in multimedia and how it’s been used in science education,” said Lue.
Biovisions, which he describes as a long-term project, is bringing top multimedia professionals together with students and faculty to harness multimedia applications – from streaming video to three-dimensional renderings – to further undergraduates’ understanding of laboratory techniques, protein structures, and molecular and cellular processes. Additional components of Biovisions will launch this fall.
Beyond the education of the nearly 600 undergraduate biology and biological sciences concentrators, the department will use the HHMI grant to share its faculty expertise with future college students.
“We take very seriously our obligation to contribute to natural sciences education at the high school level,” said Lue.
Building on outreach activities already in place, the department will sponsor a lecture and laboratory series for high school science teachers in the fall, a series of workshops for high school students in the spring, and an intensive summer workshop for teachers next summer. All will have significant faculty involvement and opportunities for high schoolers and teachers to learn firsthand about Harvard research.
“The frontiers for biology are expanding at a rate like we’ve never seen before, and there’s no question that our lives will be tremendously impacted by biology, even if we’re not physicians or research scientists,” said Lue. For high school teachers as for biological sciences concentrators, staying on top of the latest developments is crucial.
“It’s dangerous to continue to have courses that have these traditional ‘cookbook’ syllabi and cookbook lab components,” he added, “because those are now so dated that they don’t give you the insight that you need in terms of understanding what biology is all about today.”
With several rounds of HHMI funding already supporting years of innovation, the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department is confident that its changes are effective. Lue described sophomores attending – and truly understanding – major scientific meetings.
“Our undergraduates are leaving Harvard with a sense of how research is done and a real solid sense of how the principles, the facts, are based on research data,” said Lue. “There’s no question that more than a decade of this sort of innovation has had a major impact.”