It is easy to start up a program and think the work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth! Good science programs are always trying new things, evaluating, gathering info from the workforce, talking to graduates now in professional schools, etc. Good programs are on a never-ending quest for program improvement.
Where does the information come from to drive adjustments? At McMurry, all academic departments undergo annual assessment of their programs. We are given the liberty to select what aspect of our program to evaluate in a given year. Some programs evaluate what they are good at so they can check off the box saying they are successful. Biology at McMurry takes a different tack. We see assessment as an opportunity to uncover our weaknesses so we might make adjustments to strengthen our program for the benefit of future students. In the past, this led to the creation of the BIMS degree and Life Sciences degree to complement the Biology degree. Our approach to assessment is discovery of information to guide ongoing program improvement.
So what does Biology use to help measure program quality and success. We use internal and external measures. Internally, we use a diagnostic exam taken during the Junior year to see how well our lower-level courses are performing to prepare our students for upper level work. For BIMS majors, this is accomplished in BIMS 4000 Junior exam, a degree requirement. The course carries no load credit, and features an online exam created in-house that can be taken as often as desired until an acceptable score is achieved. The feedback is invaluable! If we find an abundance of missed questions in a particular area, we know we have a course we need to work on. We also have an internal measure of quality based on the students’ capstone research projects. This senior project and resulting research poster are very telling in how well a student can “go deep” integrating the breadth of their coursework to guide them. Is this student ready to enter work or research or professional school with a toolkit and the experience to do more than just talk about their discipline?
We also use external measures. Students take the ETS Major Field Test in Biology in the BIMS 4000 course. This gives us valuable information about how our students compare with those from hundreds of other Biology programs around the nation, both in their composite scores for biology knowledge in general, and in the subscore areas appropriate to their degree program. Our seniors also take the Collegiate Learning Assessment exam to measure growth of writing and reasoning skills over their four years of college. Also nationally-normed, this provides additional confirmation of the quality of their education in comparison with students from across the nation in a variety of college majors. And finally, we look at the success of our students in using their degree to further their careers – entry into a science-centered job, acceptance into a science graduate program, or acceptance into a professional school program. Their success beyond McMurry and the feedback they provide helps us emphasize what is important and eliminated wasted effort for future students aspiring to similar careers.
How intentional is your science department in assessing its quality?
The end of the fall semester signals the completion of Dr. Wilson’s sabbatical and the beginning of the sabbatical for Dr. Benoit. The two are working on a project to create an online microbiology course for allied health students. Neither would say online micro is the way to go for training a new generation of microbiologists, but creating microbe awareness for those in allied health fields is possible using their unique approach. And, the realization that a growing list of schools have mandated these courses be taught online (including an online lab) has led them to face the challenge of making sure such classes are done right. So, the goal is better tools for online microbiology labs and lectures, resources that will maximize learning from a less than optimal approach.
Dr. Wilson’s summer and fall semester have been devoted to creating an online lab. The approach used is one of simulation, kitchen microbiology, and “scavenger hunts”-online searches and trips to local stores. He has only completed about 75% of the work to date, mainly because his students in his regular microbiology class this spring will help to provide a student’s perspective on “what works” in keeping the activities interesting, informative, and fun. There will be liberal use of videos in the final product, and students will help with their production. The goal is to have a finished, polished product by the end of the spring semester – in time for use in the BIOL 3403 microbiology course to be taught this summer.
Dr. Benoit will spend the spring developing the lecture component of the course. There will be scores of short, focused lectures on key topics to allied health microbiology. Using a cafeteria approach, an instructor can choose which of these to include to create a tailored course fitting a school’s unique needs. Benoit plans to use the materials in a test run this summer with BIOL 3403 and have a polished product ready for Fall 2013.
The project is being done with the cooperation and resources of Intuitive Systems, Inc., developer of the simulation software to be used in the lab. Students will purchase access to the web resources and complete many of their assignments online. It is expected that access to the lab and lecture together will run less than the cost of a textbook or lab manual. Quizzes and activities will be auto-graded on the website and the results sent to student and instructor. For a sneak peek at the early stages of website development, click here.
As a microbiologist, it is easy to look at the image of Gram negative rods at left and see uniformity in shape, metabolism, and genetics. Each cell like the other. I think sometimes, particularly at big schools where majors are as plentiful as the bacteria in the micrograph, students can encounter faculty who see their students in the same way. Major, classification, ID number, career goal. It can be easy to miss the uniqueness of each individual and their journey to graduation from college.
I mention this because it is hard to believe the fall semester is so far gone that it is time to start looking to January. This week marks the advising period before spring registration begins on Monday. Students are meeting with advisors, looking at short term and long term scheduling of courses, and seeing the conclusion of their college careers begin to take shape.
I am back on campus for this event, taking a temporary break from my sabbatical to allow me to spend time with my advisees. Like most faculty, advising consists of two separate but equally important facets: what does the total four-year degree package and career goal look like, and how can the next semester best contribute to that plan. In the past few days, I’ve met with a good portion of my advisees and our conversations included the following:
- A sophomore student working to graduate in three years (MANY BIMS majors finish in 3-3.5 yrs) and trying to get some key courses taken this spring to help prepare her for the MCAT in May. Human Physiology or Microbiology? ( Because of courses she has taken and emphasis in the MCAT, we decided on Human Phys).
- Another sophomore student planning on the 3.5 yr plan and trying to best schedule courses this spring to enable management of biochemistry, molecular biology, physics, and other science courses next year. Can we squeeze in a minor in Spanish and the two semesters of Human A&P as electives. (Depends on whether you want a Biochem minor and Immunology).
- Three junior students all planning on writing Honors Theses next spring and interested in how to position themselves to complete their research and all other Honors requirements before this time next year. (It is possible if literature search begins this spring and research begins this summer. And one expectation I have for Honors students is that they submit their work for publication in addition to writing their Honors Thesis).
- A freshman transfer student eager to find ways to maximize the contributions of credit already earned elsewhere toward completion of her BIMS degree, all the while looking at how to best prepare for PA school. (We will have to petition for a course substitution to keep her on course).
- Another student whose road to teacher certification in the sciences is being charted, using courses transferred from junior college. Our goal is to take her unconventional course selection and timing and translate it into student teaching next fall. (Depends on whether she can get four Education courses completed this spring and summer).
In each of these situations, unique personalities, skill sets, career goals, and personal journeys have contributed to tailored and intentional advising. McMurry is not a place where students are shoved into a cookie-cutter plan for their degree and left to fend for themselves. We see advising as a cooperative effort between student and faculty to accomplish the goal. It is one of our greatest teaching/service accomplishments, as we look at the person and imagine and vision how best to help dream become reality.
I am honored and blessed to work with other faculty who are as intentional in their dedication to personalized student success as I am, and who routinely go beyond adequate to be excellent in their contributions to student achievement and success. I fully expect that from this group will come at least three doctors, two PAs, a graduate student in a biomedical science, and an exceptional middle school science teacher. After all, that is what we are working toward.