ASU researcher leads national effort to transform undergraduate biology education

June 2, 2014

During the past few decades, the field of biology has dramatically expanded, incorporating many diverse sub-disciplines and specialty areas, such as microbiology and evolutionary biology. However, teaching biology to undergraduate students has not kept pace with the changes, and core biology curriculum varies widely from university to university and classroom to classroom.

In an effort to both capture the diversity of biology and condense what is taught, an Arizona State University researcher is leading a grassroots effort to improve biology education throughout the United States. ASU professor speaking at a table Download Full Image

Working with a team from the University of Washington to collect feedback from more than 240 biologists nationwide, ASU assistant professor Sara Brownell has developed a new, detailed core concept template called BioCore Guide. The guide is intended to provide an updated blueprint for educators to help them clarify the learning outcomes for undergraduate students majoring in general biology.

“What we really wanted to articulate was, at the end of four years, what do we want a graduating general biology major to know about the core concepts of biology?” asked Brownell, an education researcher with ASU’s School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Even if they end up specializing in neuroscience or microbiology, there are some fundamental concepts in ecology and molecular biology that we want them to know. We especially want students to understand that these core concepts extend across sub-disciplines of biology.”

The complete guide appears today in the online journal Cell Biology Education – Life Sciences Education, a quarterly journal frequently read by researchers and biology educators.

BioCore Guide builds on previous reform efforts

Brownell’s research builds on initial efforts in 2011 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association for the Advancement in Science (AAAS) to reform undergraduate biology education. Through conversations with more than 500 biologists and biology educators, NSF and AAAS developed a set of recommendations and five core concepts outlined in the paper “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.”

The five core concepts include evolution, information flow, structure function, transformations of energy and matter, and systems.

“'Vision and Change' provides just a paragraph or two, not a lot of specificity,” said Brownell. “It’s hard for educators to read, take back to class and figure out how they should teach a particular subject in biology. So we decided to more clearly communicate what the core concepts of 'Vision and Change' actually mean for general biology majors. Other sub-disciplines of biology have already done this for students in their sub-discipline specific courses, but no one has done it for general biology majors.”

The BioCore Guide provides overarching principles for each core concept, as well as 40 statements that illustrate the concepts within each major subdivision of biology, including molecular, cellular and developmental biology; physiology; and ecology and evolutionary biology. The statements and principles have already been nationally validated by hundreds of biologists and biology educators.

Brownell added, “Looking at biology education from a broader perspective, we need to stop lecturing to students in a large lecture hall about the tiny details of biology. One solution is to teach through active learning environments. Another is to start tracking our students’ progress through the major.”

Brownell and her colleagues plan to use the BioCore Guide as the basis for developing a curriculum assessment that can track how well biology majors understand the core concepts throughout their undergraduate studies. She adds that the BioCore Guide is not meant to dictate when a subject should be taught, or what to teach, but rather to serve as a resource for both faculty and biology departments to generate conversations that lead to a plan for improvements in biology education.

University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Department of Biology and NSF DUE 1323010 collaborative research grant provided funding for this project.

Sandra Leander

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing, School of Life Sciences


ASU psychology student named 2014 Tillman Military Scholar

June 2, 2014

An Arizona State University student veteran pursuing her online degree in psychology has been named a 2014 Tillman Military Scholar by the Pat Tillman Foundation in recognition of her service, leadership and academic excellence. Diana Kramer joins a class of 59 U.S. service members, veterans and military spouses chosen to receive $1.4 million in scholarships from the six-year-old program.

Kramer currently serves with the U.S. Air Force at Eielson Air Force Base, near the town of North Pole, Alaska. Since graduating from Naval School in Explosive Ordinance Disposal in 2003, she has deployed five times – twice each to Iraq and Afghanistan. Recognizing PTSD symptoms in her own life after her tours, Kramer is studying for her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She also plans to pursue advanced psychology degrees in order to counsel fellow veterans. Diana Kramer Download Full Image

The number of ASU student veterans applying to become Tillman Military Scholars has consistently increased each year, according to Christian Rauschenbach, program manager at ASU’s Pat Tillman Veterans Center.

“This year we had 120 applicants for the Tillman Military Scholarships,” he said. “A committee of ASU staff members from Veteran Services, Veteran’s Upward Bound and Career Services had the tough job of choosing only 12 semi-finalists, which were then forwarded to the Pat Tillman Foundation for final selection.

“We are very excited that Diana was chosen – I know she will be an outstanding representative for ASU.”


In 2008, the Pat Tillman Foundation established the Tillman Military Scholars program to support educational opportunities for service members and military families by bridging the financial gaps that students often face, even though they may be using educational benefits. The scholarship covers direct study-related expenses, including tuition and fees, books and a living stipend. In providing this support, the Pat Tillman Foundation aims to remove obstacles that would otherwise prohibit academic and career success.


“The Tillman Military Scholarship is not a gift; it is an investment in excellence and potential,” said Marie Tillman, president and co-founder of the Pat Tillman Foundation. “Pat lived his life with a passion for learning and action – he didn’t sit on the sidelines.

“The Tillman Military Scholars selected embody the same ideals that he lived by every day. Through our mission, we are proud to support and empower these outstanding leaders as they pursue their educational goals and strive to impact significant, positive change for our country and communities after their military service.”

ASU continues to work closely with the Pat Tillman Foundation through several programs, as well as hosting Pat’s Run annually. “I’m glad to see that Pat’s Run has now expanded well beyond the annual Tempe event to shadow runs across the country, because it all goes towards helping the Tillman Military Scholars,” Rauschenbach said.

To date, the Pat Tillman Foundation has invested over $10 million in educational support and scholarships, benefiting 350 Tillman Military Scholars at more than 98 academic institutions nationwide.