Two Sam Houston State University professors have been selected as exemplary biologists for participation in the research residency of the American Society for Microbiology’s Biology Scholars Program, funded by the National Science Foundation.
Todd Primm, chair of Sam Houston State University’s Department of Biological Sciences, and Madhusudan Choudhary, assistant professor of biology, are two of 20 professors nationwide chosen to help improve the way college students learn biology.
The program seeks to improve undergraduate biology education by helping biologists understand evidence-based research in biology education learning; develop skills to create, design and implement an experiment to assess student learning; and sustain a community of practice available for consultation and support.
“The 2012 research residency begins with the four-day intensive Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Institute at ASM headquarters in Washington, DC, on July 25,” Primm said. “The program is yearlong and seeks biologists who have been trained in effective teaching strategies and are curious about how students learn.”
In addition to the research residency, the scholars program offers residencies in assessment and transitions.
Not only will the biologists participate in the institute in July, they will complete pre- and post-institute assignments and readings; attend a capstone institute; present a biology-scholars related project at the ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators; give presentations at local and/or national meetings; be members of the Biology Scholars e-community for two years; and participate in up to five years of tracking of professional development.
Primm serves as president of the Texas Branch of the ASM, and Choudhary serves as secretary.
“As a national organization, ASM really does well with drawing people in scholarship, teaching and learning,” Primm said. “The Texas Branch has historically been very strong in research content and is now expanding into education as well. My major goal as president is to involve more adjuncts and community college faculty in our branch and enhance our community of educators.”
While scientific research has a valuable place in teaching and learning, both Primm and Choudhary feel that science education encompasses more than just research.
“You cannot play the piano with just one hand,” Choudhary said. “In this country, we are very good in graduate research. We are leading the world in almost every field.
“The one thing we don’t have is the same rigor and the same innovation in undergraduate teaching,” he said. “This is something scientists now realize. It has become a big movement to treat scientific teaching the way we treat scientific research through mentoring, technology, activities for critical thinking, and argument. Over the past five or six years, our professional societies are encouraging us to do this.”
“Students need all the facts and the basic knowledge, but they also need critical thinking, which is a popular buzz-word term in the scientific community now,” Primm said. “Students need to understand the scientific process and how to apply critical thinking because science moves so fast now. Even more important than the facts are the analysis and the thinking.”
The biologists feel that SHSU is in a strong position to earn national recognition in science education.
“Most colleges and universities in Texas are doing things to enhance the educational experiences of their undergraduate students,” Primm said.
“When you talk about research, we have real research at Sam Houston, and we have lots of good research in biology,” he said. “But realistically, if you talk about being a national leader in research, we can’t compare to schools like Baylor College of Medicine—they spent something like $400 million just last year in research.
“However, when you talk about science education, we can go head-to-head with anybody in the country, and I’m confident of that,” Primm said. “We’re doing a lot of good things, and we have a lot of good teachers in biology, as well as in chemistry, physics, and other disciplines. We just need more recognition and support.”
Primm is hoping that through publishing, attending professional conferences, and participating in the scholars program, Sam Houston can attract funding from NSF and National Institutes of Health to assist with science education, particularly for undergraduates.
“If you look at our undergraduate research, we do really well with that,” he said. “I know we do, because at these regional meetings, like ASM and the Texas Academy of Science, our students win awards all the time. We compete against other schools like Texas A&M, Baylor and UTMB—schools well known for their research.”
Primm feels that national funding would be a critical boost to undergraduate education at SHSU, a school where many students have to work to pay for their education.
“Time is a serious issue for our undergraduates,” he said. “Research takes a lot of time, and if we could give them a stipend from one of these research grants, they could quit that outside job, have lots of time to be in the lab, and we could bring in a lot of students that we just can’t bring in right now.”
Although Primm and Choudhary expect to learn a lot more as members of the biology scholars program about going beyond the traditional classroom lecture and studying how activities and assignments can improve student learning, as well as better assessment, they believe that SHSU is already on the right track.
“As with many faculty, I came to Sam Houston because I enjoy teaching, wanted a lot of interaction with undergraduates, and wished to continue my research program while mentoring students in the lab,” Primm said. “This can be an excellent environment for those who believe in the teacher-scholar model.”