Rebuilding the Foundation of Science Education

By Ian Mathias

news-phage-genomeMap

A
new university-wide initiative aims to change the way science is introduced to undergraduates. With the launch of the Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI), the Provost’s Office and educators from around Johns Hopkins are hard at work improving introductory science courses. By encouraging the use of new teaching technologies and techniques, the GSI ultimately strives to get students more excited about the process of discovery.

“Our institutions spend a lot of time designing, organizing, and publicizing what is taught, but much less time [focusing on] what is learned,” says Provost Lloyd Minor, who is spearheading the GSI. “We hope to put a new emphasis on student learning—active learning, online learning, individualized learning, and engaged learning.”

One example of this new approach is already unfolding in the Department of Biology. Acknowledging that freshmen often have difficulty securing positions in research labs, faculty members in the department have teamed with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance to launch the JHU PHAGES program. Instead of offering young Hopkins scholars lectures on virology and genomic science, faculty in this program guide students through the process of isolating and characterizing unique bacterium-infecting viruses (called phages). Ripe with opportunity for original discovery and hands-on learning, the class culminates with the students coming together to annotate and publish the sequenced genome of one of the student’s phages.

The Gateway Sciences Initiative is supporting such endeavors with 10 inaugural grants, awarded in December 2011. The grants fund pilot projects across JHU that will improve current gateway courses and point the way to potentially larger changes in pedagogy, course and program design, and instructional methodologies. The Department of Biology received a GSI grant to improve on the success of the PHAGES program, and the departments of Physics and Astronomy, Mathematics, and Chemistry, and Krieger’s Advanced Academic Programs, received grants for their own respective projects—ranging from producing online video tutorials for complicated math problems, to a major modernization of the General Physics course.

For information on the GSI, including more on the 10 inaugural grants and video of keynote speakers from a recent JHU symposium on teaching excellence in the sciences, visit: web.jhu.edu/administration/provost/GSI.

At left, bacterium infecting phages collected by freshmen as part of the JHU PHAGES program, which is supported by the GSI. Overlayed on the right, a genome map of one of the phages.

Photo, left: Will Kirk / Right: Genome Map courtesy of Professor Joel Schildbach