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Governor’s Task Force Backs Plan to Transform UW Science Education

November 25, 2014
woman using pendulum in physics class
Courtney Smith of Cheyenne, a student in an introductory physics class at the University of Wyoming, uses a pendulum in a hands-on lesson. The class, taught by physics/astronomy professors Danny Dale and Chip Kobulnicky, follows an “active learning” approach that is central to UW’s Science Initiative, a plan endorsed by the Wyoming Governor’s Top-Tier Science Programs and Facilities Task Force. (UW Photo)

A panel of accomplished scientists, industry leaders and other professionals has endorsed a plan to improve science education and student success at the University of Wyoming, while creating world-class facilities to propel research on issues important to the state and nation.

The plan has the potential to fundamentally transform science education across Wyoming while driving innovation and economic progress, the Wyoming Governor’s Top-Tier Science Programs & Facilities Task Force says in a report to Gov. Matt Mead.

“This plan proposes to change the way UW has taught the sciences to students through ‘active learning’ methodologies and classroom spaces, offering quantifiable impacts that would allow thousands of students a year to learn more, retain more of what they have learned, and be more likely to succeed in the marketplace,” wrote task force co-chairs Carol Brewer and Dave Freudenthal in an accompanying letter to the governor. “For students and instructors alike, the central element is integrated and interactive learning that will transform science education.”

The Science Initiative plan, developed by the task force along with a team of UW science faculty members, calls for programmatic and facilities improvements in two phases, starting in 2015 and concluding in 2021. It emphasizes collaboration among multiple disciplines by assembling researchers into a single complex with shared instrumentation, technical support and collaboration spaces.

“I am impressed with the report and the recommendations,” the governor says. “The task force members, working with UW professors, have a strong plan for the future of science education. The proposal incorporates an innovative approach to teaching -- active learning -- with the potential to advance student comprehension in UW science programs. Collaboration among various science disciplines resulted in this dynamic proposal -- just a glimpse at the possibilities the proposal brings to science at UW."

A new way of teaching and learning

The plan signals a dramatic change in the way the foundational sciences are taught at the university, moving from traditional lectures and laboratories to an “active learning” format. That approach involves collaborative work among small groups of students and instructors, with traditional lectures replaced by a variety of learning opportunities including short interactive lectures, small-group discussions, case studies and Web-based opportunities outside of class.

The report notes that research has shown significant improvement in student success in active learning classrooms, both at UW and across the nation. The report also points out that academic units that are part of the Science Initiative -- botany, zoology, molecular biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy -- touch more than 72 percent of all UW students, including all K-12 pre-service teachers, many of whom will go on to teach in Wyoming public schools.

“National research indicates K-12 teachers tend to teach the way they were taught in school,” the report says. “Training college instructors in the best active learning practices will create a positive feedback loop that will transform not only the campus teaching culture, but also K-12 education statewide.”

To transition to active learning, the plan calls for robust training and mentoring programs for science department faculty members, along with more research opportunities for students through enhanced faculty mentoring, training programs and internships.

The first phase of the plan also includes construction of a suite of active learning classrooms to accommodate the new teaching style, with large theater-style lecture halls replaced by studio-style classrooms containing round tables supported by computers and video displays that can be connected and shared across the class. Those classrooms would complement instructional laboratories in the new Michael B. Enzi STEM Facility, slated to open in 2015.

New research centers, collaborative spaces

In addition to active learning classrooms, Phase 1 includes construction of facilities for two modern, state-of-the-art research centers:

--  The Center for Advanced Scientific Imaging (CASI), which would bring together in one location UW imaging scientists, student teams and instruments such as electron microscopes and spectrometers. That would “allow them to achieve unprecedented sensitivities and efficiencies in probing the fundamental interactions between atoms, molecules and cells that underlie all next-generation technologies,” the report says.

“The center will rank among the world’s best, attracting faculty and students from across the globe as it spotlights Wyoming’s commitment to the sciences that serve state and national needs.”

-- The Center for Integrative Biological Research (CIBR), which would bring together UW’s top biologists into a single location “to foster innovation and convergent research activities addressing some of Wyoming’s most pressing environmental and health-related challenges.” The area would include facilities for growing plants and using animals for research.

Both centers would be based upon an innovative, collaborative approach intended to stimulate “interdisciplinary research activities involving chemists, physicists, astronomers and biologists,” the report says. “Collaborative research activities across disciplines in the core sciences would transform the way UW investigates and teaches science.”

The report suggests locating the new centers and active learning classrooms in a new building to be constructed in the space between UW’s Biological Sciences Building and Physical Sciences Building. The single complex represents a willingness of UW’s core science programs to move away from traditional academic silos and individual programs, reducing duplication and inefficiencies.

At the same time, the plan calls for new programs to recruit and retain top faculty members and graduate students to work in the new facilities, along with a new Wyoming Research Scholars Program to attract top Wyoming high school graduates and pair them with faculty mentors in cutting-edge research projects. Funding for equipment and research projects also would be available, to encourage more competitive, externally funded research proposals.

The estimated price tag for Phase 1 is $103 million in one-time construction and planning costs and $5.41 million annually in recurring expenses for programs.

Future renovations

The second phase would include renovation of vacated spaces in the Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences buildings to provide new research spaces and small active learning classrooms for upper-division and graduate biology, chemistry and physics courses.

In addition, Phase 2 would include renovation of the Aven Nelson Building, first opened in 1922, to be a more suitable home for UW’s Department of Botany and its renowned Rocky Mountain Herbarium and Solheim Mycological Herbarium.

In Phase 1, UW’s Department of Molecular Biology would move from its current location in the Animal Science-Molecular Biology Building on the east end of campus to the new CASI-CIBR facilities. That would free up much-needed space for the Department of Animal Science to grow, and Phase 2 would include renovations for that purpose.

Finally, Phase 2 includes a significant upgrade of UW’s Jelm Mountain research telescope facilities, with the potential to put the university at the forefront of astronomical research among U.S. institutions.

Funding and implementation

The task force concludes that state general fund appropriations are the most realistic and appropriate means of funding the Science Initiative. The group endorses a proposal to include $750,000 for initial programmatic funding in the supplemental budget to be considered during the coming legislative session, along with $3 million for facilities planning.

The task force suggests that lawmakers and the governor set aside construction funding over a three-year period, beginning with $30 million in the 2016 fiscal year.

The plan includes a number of measures to gauge the success of the efforts, including specific increases in the number of undergraduates involved in science research; the graduation rates of undergraduate science majors; the number of Ph.D. recipients; and research output and grant funding.

“The bedrock of this proposal is formed by existing faculty and the collaborative scientific culture that has been created at UW, and demonstrated by the Campus Leadership Team assembled to work with the Task Force in the development of this response,” wrote Brewer, a UW alumnus now on the faculty of the University of Montana’s Division of Biological Sciences, and Freudenthal, Wyoming’s former two-term governor. “The Task Force was exposed to faculty working with a collaborative spirit on the challenge posed by the Legislature, while also witnessing remarkable research accomplishments being made in existing, cramped and very substandard, research facilities.”

Other members of the Wyoming Governor’s Top-Tier Science Programs & Facilities Task Force are:

-- Tom Botts, former executive vice president of global manufacturing for Royal Dutch Shell who received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from UW in 1977. He also is a member of the Wyoming Governor’s Energy, Engineering and STEM Integration Task Force.

-- Lowell Burnett, chief technical adviser to Quantum Applied Science & Research (QUASAR) Inc. and CEO of QUASAR Federal Systems Inc. He received his Ph.D. in physics from UW in 1970 and worked for many years in higher education, including as a department head at San Diego State University. He co-founded Quantum Magnetics Inc. in 1987.

-- Jeffrey Cummings, director of the Cleveland Clinic-Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Cleveland, Ohio, and Las Vegas, Nev. The former director of the UCLA-Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research received his bachelor’s degree in zoology/physiology from UW in 1970 and his medical degree from the University of Washington.

-- Brent Eastman, a physician who specializes in general, vascular and trauma surgery; and currently president of the American College of Surgeons. He is a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and president of the Howard C. Naffziger Surgical Society at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF). The Evanston native graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UW in zoology/physiology in 1962 and received his medical degree from UCSF.

-- Fred Eshelman, the retired founder of Pharmaceutical Product Development, which now has 10,000 employees and operations in 38 countries. The former faculty member at the University of Cincinnati received his bachelor’s degree from High Point University and his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where the pharmacy school is named for him. He owns a ranch at Elk Mountain and has served on a UW School of Pharmacy advisory board.

-- Bob Grieve, founder and former CEO of Heska Corp., a Colorado-based animal health care firm that sells advanced veterinary diagnostic and other specialty products. He is executive chairman of the Heska board. After earning his bachelor’s (1973) and master’s (1975) degrees at UW and his Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Florida, he also taught at Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Colorado State University.

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