Two Colorado State University professors were among 39 educators from around the nation to receive the honorable National Academies title of Education Fellow in the Life Sciences for their outstanding work completed at an institute aimed at fostering innovative approaches to teaching undergraduate biology.
Colorado State recipients include Professor Ingrid C. Burke, University Distinguished Teaching Scholar who specializes in forest and rangeland studies, and Joseph von Fischer, assistant professor of biology with a joint appointment as a research scientist at Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. Fischer focuses on the interactions of plants and microbes in relation to the ways in which they affect how ecosystems work.
Burke and von Fischer attended the 2004 National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology where they were bestowed with the honor. Teams from 20 research universities assembled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a week of presentations, discussions and intensive group work focused on enhancing undergraduate education.
The institute grew out of a recommendation in a report issued last year by the National Academies’ National Research Council titled "Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists," which called for changes in the way college students are taught biology. The report noted that undergraduate biology education was failing to keep pace with revolutionary advances in biomedical research that require those working in the field to have a good understanding of other scientific disciplines, such as math and computer sciences, and urged instructors to integrate other subjects into their biology classes.
The 2004 institute focused on how to improve large introductory biology courses taught by the fellows; together, they will teach more than 22,000 students this academic year. In addition to developing the teachable units, participants at the institute discussed how to encourage colleagues and graduate teaching assistants to adopt new teaching practices, how to engage non-biology majors and increase student participation in large lectures and how to properly assess student learning. Participants will become part of a growing network of summer institute alumni, and some will be recruited as mentors for future institutes.
"By sending a team to the National Academies Summer Institute, Colorado State is at the forefront of education reform that is so essential for educating both future scientists and scientifically-literate citizens," said Bruce Alberts, Chairman of the National Research Council.
"I feel that my experience with the National Academies Education workshop has given me an important set of tools that will help me one day to be a strong university educator," von Fischer said. "It is very difficult to deeply engage students in the large lectures that dominate at universities like Colorado State, and my experience with the National Academies Education workshop taught me to apply a scientific approach to teaching."
Both von Fischer and Burke teach the introductory biology course at Colorado State as well as conduct their own research.
Currently, von Fischer is researching ecological aspects of climate change and the availability of nutrients for plants and the way in which gas methane that is released into the atmosphere by certain ecosystems is consumed by other ecosystems. He also is interested in the properties of soils and their influence on microbial activity.
Burke is known as a major researcher at the university and as past director of the National Science Foundation’s Long-term Ecological Research site for the short-grass steppe. She was awarded the University Distinguished Teaching Scholar honor in 2001.
Burke’s interest in innovations in higher education is shown through her development of undergraduate opportunities in research and an honors section in environmental conservation, which allows her to provide state-of-the-art education to students. She also contributes significantly to graduate education and to mentoring a diverse array of graduate students. Colorado State undergraduate students have twice nominated Burke for the university’s Best Teacher Award.