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Science  25 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5948, pp. 1637-1640
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_1637

25 September 2009

Edited by Edward W. Lempinen


Experts Urge "Bold" New Undergrad Biology Courses for 21st Century Students

In the field. Students in the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates participate in ongoing field studies as part of an innovative science curriculum.

Biology 101 must undergo a dramatic shift in its texts, teachers, and testing to prepare all students—not just science majors—for their futures in an increasingly scientific and technological society, experts said at a groundbreaking conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation and AAAS.

Rote memorization is the rule in most classes, leaving many students unsure how scientists do their work and unable to evaluate scientific claims. But participants at the Washington, D.C., event offered innovative curricula and a renewed focus to develop these skills in their students.

"Realizing that the status quo in science education is not achieving the results we need, we have to undertake this bold challenge, breathing new life into our classrooms," said NSF Director Arden Bement.

Tasks like memorizing the parts of a cell "and spitting back the answers on multiple-choice exams" are more common than critical-thinking exercises and hands-on experimentation, said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science. "It's really taken all the joy and interest out of science education—it's corrupted."

The "Vision & Change in Undergraduate Biology Education" conference, held 15 to 17 July, marked the midpoint of an intensive three-year effort by AAAS's Education and Human Resources unit and NSF. In 2006, the organizations held a series of conversations with more than 200 faculty members, administrators, and undergraduate students, seeking input on how to improve the curriculum.

The conversations formed the basis for this summer's conference, which drew 500 faculty members, education administrators, and policy-makers to discuss how to rebuild biology education into a pursuit as vibrant and relevant as the science itself. "Right now, the biology we teach does not reflect the biology we do," said Felicia Keesing, an associate professor of biology at Bard College.

Students want to know more about the connections and the applications of the science they learn, and they prefer interactive teaching methods. But for the most part, the current textbooks and testing regimes thwart this type of learning, Keesing said.

In plenary speeches and smaller working groups, the conference participants outlined the essential elements of a 21st-century biology course: hands-on research programs, more technology in the classroom, student-centered presentations and opportunities for teaching others, and communities of professors and students working on collaborative, often international projects.

Biology faculty should be prepared to expand and update their own education to accomplish these goals, said Carol Brewer, a conference co-chair and associate dean at the College of Arts and Science at the University of Montana. "Teaching methods should be as innovative as the science taught in class," she noted.

Alan I. Leshner, conference co-chair and AAAS CEO, said the conference was among the most important in his 30 years in Washington, D.C. But he cautioned the participants to be wary of solutions that might only support a scientific workforce while leaving behind most undergraduates. Leshner, who is also the executive publisher of Science, said all citizens need to understand how researchers work in order to make informed decisions in a world where "science is assuming a near-omnipresent role."

Alberts and others pointed to the findings of a July survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and AAAS as a sign of how undergraduate biology education may be falling short. The survey's results, which found significant divergence in how scientists and the public view the research on climate change and evolution, "struck me as a symptom of our striking failure" to share how scientific knowledge is developed and evaluated, said Alberts.

AAAS Pacific Division

San Francisco Bay: The Coming Flood?

Rising waters. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey and others shows that if water levels in the San Francisco Bay rise 140 centimeters by 2100, as some models predict, thousands of acres of tidal marsh and developed land (in blue) would be vulnerable to inundation.

SAN FRANCISCO—Humans have had a disruptive impact on San Francisco Bay since the days of the Gold Rush, with mining sediment, development, and industrial waste tainting waters and harming wildlife throughout the famous estuary. But now Bay researchers see the potential for human-caused change on an unprecedented scale as a result of the warming climate.

At the annual meeting of the AAAS Pacific Division here, top Bay experts detailed the current and future impacts of climate change on the complex Bay ecosystem, from the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the coastline outside Golden Gate. The most pervasive threat, they said, could come from rising seas, with some models predicting Bay levels could rise by 140 centimeters (about 55 inches) by the end of the century.

That could inundate low-lying urban areas, including international airports in San Francisco and Oakland, and submerge tidal marshes that are essential to the Bay's health. And with water levels already 20 to 30 centimeters higher than a century ago and a storm-spawning El Niño system emerging in the Pacific, this winter could foreshadow trouble ahead.

"Sea-level rise during the next El Niño could provide a preview of what sea level in the Bay will look like in the future," said Dan Hanes, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) oceanographer and former professor of civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida. "If there is a storm coincident with high tides anytime during an El Niño winter, there will be significant flooding in the region."

The AAAS Pacific Division's 90th annual meeting, from 14 to 19 August at the California Academy of Sciences and San Francisco State University, drew more than 475 scientists, engineers, teachers, students, journalists, and others. Marking the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the meeting focused on how nature changes through evolution, and how humans must build a sustainable relationship with nature to ensure the future health of all life.

But the events at the meeting included a diverse range of issues: the search on Earth and beyond for "weird life," or life that does not share a biochemical heritage with known plants and creatures; project-based science learning; recent advances in pharmacology and toxicology; and communicating science to the public.

The AAAS Pacific Division, with 30,000 members, has long focused attention on the San Francisco Bay. In 1977, 1980, and 1994, the division held symposia on the estuary and produced reports that still provide valuable insight to today's researchers. This year, at a day-long symposium, more than a dozen researchers from universities, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations depicted the Bay as dynamic and resilient, but under extraordinary stress.

Great progress has been made in reducing sewage discharges and the concentrations of many heavy metals, said Jay A. Davis, an environmental scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. But mercury, dioxin, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) remain problems, and brominated fire retardants (PBDEs) have been found in Bay food webs at concentrations not seen elsewhere in the world, Davis said.

Tidal marshes and wildlife such as the endangered California clapper rail are slowly rebounding. At the same time, though, more than 250 invasive species—cordgrass, kelp, and clams, even goldfish and catfish—are establishing the Bay as "among the most invaded estuaries in the world," said Edwin Grosholz, a benthic ecologist at the University of California-Davis.

Climate change could compound such problems by stirring up Bay-floor sediment that contains toxicants and by making the Bay more hospitable to other invaders. And those, researchers said, are just some of the problems posed by the changing climate.

Noah Knowles, a USGS research hydrologist, explained that Bay waters could turn more salty if less precipitation falls in the Sierra Nevada as predicted by some climate models. More ominously, Knowles said that if Bay levels rise by a projected 50-140 cm, the threat to developed areas might compel policy-makers to consider improving existing protective levees and building new ones—at a cost of billions of dollars.

Outside the Golden Gate, Hanes reported, the reduced flow of sediment from the Bay may be related to the shrinking size of the Ebb Tide Delta, a radial-shaped underwater ridge that protects the coast. The shrinking ridge, combined with rising seas and bigger Pacific waves, may be contributing to significant, damaging coastal erosion.

Science Policy

New AAAS Database Could Aid Voting Reform

With concerns persisting about the function—and malfunction—of the U.S. voting system, AAAS has launched the nation's first Web-based, searchable database that provides access to a broad range of voting-related research.

The project will give researchers, election administrators, journalists, and others fast, free access to studies on issues ranging from voting technology and ballot design to voter behavior and impediments to voting. The database debuted with about 500 entries and is expected to grow considerably.

Worries about the voting system emerged after problem-plagued elections in 2000 and 2006. The National Science Foundation and AAAS convened scholars, election administrators, and others for a workshop in 2004; the Carnegie Corporation of New York and AAAS held another in 2006. Plans for a database emerged from those talks, said Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program.

"There is a growing consensus in America that improvements to the election process are very much needed," said Frankel, who oversees the database. "More research and greater understanding of the U.S. voting system are imperative in order to implement effective changes."

Find the AAAS Research Database on the U.S. Voting System and Voting Technology at

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