Cornell instructor leads team to revamp national microbiology curriculum

A Cornell microbiologist is helping to shape how science is taught to undergraduates across the United States as part of a national curriculum task force.

Susan Merkel, a senior lecturer in the Department of Microbiology, has been selected by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) to create curriculum guidelines and resources to be rolled out nationwide.

As co-chair of a task force convened in 2010, Merkel leads a team of five other educators from colleges and universities of various sizes. Her group was tasked with investigating what is being taught, how it is being taught and what should be taught in microbiology classes across the nation.

"There has been a rethinking of how we teach biology, with a new focus on learning objectives and outcomes, of how students understand fundamental concepts," Merkel said. "What will they remember in five years?"

After reviewing previous guidelines, reports, curricula and many course syllabi, consulting graduate schools and polling ASM members, Merkel's group established a set of guidelines based on six overarching concepts: evolution, structure and function, pathways, information flow, systems and impact of microorganisms.

Many of the guidelines align with ones unveiled earlier this year in a much-anticipated report, "Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education," by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The guidelines also incorporate sections on scientific thinking and lab skills.

Within those core concepts, the group came up with 26 statements, such as "Microorganisms exhibit extensive metabolic diversity." Teachers will pick specific facts to illustrate this in ways that are relevant to their audience, Merkel said. Many nurses and allied health workers study microbiology, for instance, and their needs are different than those planning to focus on lab research, she said.

The guidelines were recently rolled out to 350 educators at the ASM annual meeting in Baltimore. Merkel said the document was well received and will be further polished based on feedback from the conference. Her group will then begin to put together professional development workshops and tools for teachers.

The next hurdle will be obtaining textbooks that incorporate the new concepts and convincing teachers it's worth the time and resources it will take them to include them in their classrooms.

"For many, it is a major change in how they approach teaching," Merkel said. "It's created conversations about education that I think are really important and have not been happening outside of small circles."

Merkel, winner of the 2011 Innovative Teaching Award from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the exercise has forced her to question her own practices and think about how she might test out the new models in her classroom.

In her general microbiology lab course, she already incorporates investigative learning, starting each activity with a question that students answer through experimentation, and students in her general microbiology lecture course benefit from web-based case studies in molecular microscopy and animations on microbial processes.

"I've always leaned toward active, student-centered learning," Merkel said. "I'm really excited to start experimenting with it this fall."

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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