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Fundamental Pedagogical Changes in the Core Biology Curriculum

Cornell University has initiated institution-wide changes to the core undergraduate biology curriculum to transition from traditional lecture based instruction to incorporation of active learning techniques. The first phase of this five-year transition will focus on four large introductory courses selected by the Office of Undergraduate Biology (OUB). The OUB is an independent university-wide unit organized to oversee biology curricular management across departments and colleges.

Cornell has a large and diverse biology program in which the biology major offers fourteen concentrations across several departments and colleges. The large introductory courses required for all biology majors are supported by the OUB working in close collaboration with individual departments. Due to the complex organizational delivery of biology instruction at Cornell and the need for solid foundational knowledge of key concepts for future upper-level cross-disciplinary courses, pedagogical changes to introductory courses requires input and direction from both the OUB and department faculty.

The first round of courses selected for redesign in this initiative have an average enrollment of 1140 students per semester and are listed below: 
- BioEE 1780, Biological and Environmental Engineering - Introduction to Evolutionary Biology and Diversity; 
- BioEE 1610, Biological and Environmental Engineering - Introductory Biology: Ecology and the Environment; 
- BioMG 1350, Molecular Biology and Genetics - Introductory Biology: Cell and Developmental Biology; 
- BioNB 2220, Neurobiology and Behavior II: Introduction to Neuroscience.

The implementation process will be conducted through a series of structured steps, which were identified and developed with input from faculty and course instructors across departments. Each course will re-evaluate learning objectives and identify the most appropriate methods for introducing evidence-based active learning practices. The faculty involved with restructuring the BioNB 2220 course plan to develop a Neuroscience Concept Inventory (NCI) similar to the Forced Concept Inventory administered in physics. Classroom activities and instructional material will be tailored to each class after learning outcomes are identified. The overarching goal is to improve student learning outcomes and retention and enhance the undergraduate learning experience. The reforms in the biology curriculum are one example of several projects underway involved with pedagogical innovation at the university.

In addition to the OUB and department faculty, this initiative is supported by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), The Center for Integrating Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), the Learning Strategies Center (LSC), and Cornell Information Technologies (CIT) at Cornell University. These various academic support units will assist with assessments of student learning and perceptions and implementation of new learning strategies. Summative data analysis will be performed via senior surveys and comparative analysis of student performance and overall analysis of learning will be conducted before, during and after transition in these courses and using standardized metrics (GRE, MCAT).