Experiment in the Health Sciences

Starting from scratch at the University of Minnesota's newly chartered Rochester campus, a team of faculty begins a project that aims to revolutionize teaching and learning.
September 8, 2009

Home to the Mayo Clinic and the largest IBM facility under one roof, the city of Rochester, Minn., has for more than a century been a center of experimentation and innovation.

With the start of classes today at the University of Minnesota Rochester, a new experiment is underway -- not in medicine or technology, but in teaching and learning.

Though the state university system has offered classes in the city of 100,000 since the 1960s and officially established the Rochester campus three years ago, today is the first day of full operation for the Center for Learning Innovation, a single academic unit that will guide undergraduates toward a bachelor’s of science in health sciences.

What makes the center unique is not that it offers an interdisciplinary approach to teaching future physicians, nurses and biotech entrepreneurs, nor that it gives all students a shared foundation for the first two years of study -- plenty of other institutions have created similar programs.

What’s different is what’s expected of the faculty. Rather than just conducting research in fields of expertise like biology, chemistry and mathematics, faculty must also be devoted pedagogues, spending much of their time conducting research on cognition and student learning.

“We’re hiring people who come out of disciplines but have a strong interest in learning,” says Claudia Neuhauser, the vice chancellor for academic affairs and the driving force behind CLI. “We want them to do both -- stay current in their discipline, maintain their research, focus in their discipline, especially in research with undergraduates … and then also develop research expertise in learning so that they can translate what comes out of the theory of learning into the classroom directly.”

Neuhauser, a mathematician by training who created her own calculus textbook for biology majors, is no stranger to interdisciplinarity. But CLI goes further, bringing together academic disciplines and the study of teaching and learning in hopes of bringing radical change to higher education. There are no departments, no schools, no rigidly defined courses.

Faculty will work together in delivering “modules," two-to-three week periods of study focused on a disciplinary or interdisciplinary topic. The faculty themselves are associated with three science “clusters” -- life sciences, physical sciences and quantitative sciences -- and a cluster that includes the humanities, arts and social sciences. But those clusters stop short of drawing barriers between the disciplines. "Everyone's teaching together, researching on education together, it's just that they have different fields of specialization," Neuhauser says.

The CLI experiment, which was developed with help from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, hinges on the ability of its faculty to shoulder many responsibilities all at once, balancing curriculum design, teaching, research in their respective fields and research on education.

Kelsey Metzger, a postdoctoral biologist who in May completed a doctor of arts degree at Idaho State University, acknowledges that “our plates are incredibly full” but says the interconnectedness of each of the responsibilities that she and the faculty have make it all easier to manage. “What we learn in teaching students we can use in our research and what we find in our research we can use to help our students along.”

Metzger and the two other postdocs associated with the center will lead a seminar on education and pedagogy to help get the faculty thinking about contemporary issues in undergraduate teaching and learning. "We'll be reading the literature, discussing the issues and figuring out what we here at the CLI can do to contribute to the field of research."

CLI's research will most likely come from the data it collects by assessing students. Using new learning technologies to observe students as they work and collecting any work that can be digitally captured, Neuhauser says, the faculty will constantly and consistently be assessing students. “We’ll be able to see what they can do and what they can’t do, how long it takes for them to try to do it, what takes them the most time to work on.”

As students go through their course of study, the center will mine their work for data, tracking students’ interactions with learning materials, keeping tabs on how much time students spend on tasks, what time of day they choose to do them, how they respond and what errors they make. Drafts of their papers and other raw forms of work will all be stored in the database.

Beyond helping the students in the program fill the gaps in their learning, the students’ own strengths and weaknesses will, with institutional review board approval, form a new body of data to be analyzed by cognitive scientists, pedagogues and others, all in hopes of grasping a better understanding of undergraduate learning.

For the fall term, Neuhauser has hired five tenured/tenure-track “design faculty,” three “student-based faculty,” three postdocs, a student coach and a capstone coordinator to work with a freshman class of 55. The team of 13 includes three chemists, two biologists, two mathematicians, a philosopher, a sociologist, a psychologist and a writer, all working together to deliver the same content in different ways.

Success or failure in reaching students will be measured in terms of the raw knowledge students have acquired, the intellectual and practical skills they've developed, and sense of personal and social responsibility they've cultivated. In real terms, this translates into the kinds of jobs students get, the advanced degrees they choose to pursue and the kinds of people they become.

Early on this semester, Rajeev Muthyala, the design faculty chemist, and Yuko Taniguchi, the writing instructor, will have students work on a periodic table of haiku, assigning each two elements to describe in a first line of five syllables, a second line of seven syllables and a third line of five syllables.

Muthyala wants to see “if a student can express ideas about chemistry and their particular element in a concise manner,” he says, while Taniguchi is interested in “use of the form and clarity of the subject,” she says.

Students learn about the periodic table and the poetic form of haiku but, rather than working on one assignment for chemistry class and another for writing class, will produce one piece of work that can be assessed differently by both faculty members.

“It’s more like real life,” Taniguchi says. “In their careers, students will have to write about specific subjects in the health sciences, not just writing about writing.” Once students conduct original research during their second two years of the program, she hopes to coach them through the process of writing and revising scientific journal articles, the medium in which student going on to careers in research will need to be able to work.

Rather than using textbook-provided examples, Aminul Huq, the design faculty mathematician, says he plans to teach statistics by having students analyze the data they collect in the center's chemistry and biology labs or data from relevant sources like the National Institutes of Health. "I'm not just teaching them statistics, I'm teaching them how to apply statistics to the medical sciences," he says. "In other programs, students have to do that application on their own once they get to an upper-level class, but here we're guiding them in figuring out applications."

Rebecca Bamford, the design faculty philosopher, is one of a few team members tasked with “giving students a really strong background in the liberal arts” but conveying it in “the inverse of a regular curriculum, presenting a fairly important set of issues students will face in the health sciences.”

Since joining CLI in July, Bamford has spent her time crafting an introductory humanities curriculum by herself and with her colleagues across the disciplines. “I may have ideas on something but not know much about it,” she says. “But I can walk 20 yards down the hall and ask a question to someone who is an expert on contemporary neuroscience research.”

“I think other institutions do a good job of interdisciplinary research,” Bamford says, “but this is more than just that. This is about learning how to be a more efficient and more effective educator in the classroom and beyond. This is about finding out whether students are actually learning what we’re teaching and, if not, teaching it in other ways until they understand it.”

Though other institutions have created centers focused on a particular kind of research or study, Bamford says the difference at Rochester is that the center “has been created from scratch” as a place where faculty are at once focused on research in their fields, on interdisciplinary projects and on figuring out better ways for them to teach and students to learn.

Peter Larsen spent a year doing a postdoctoral fellowship and three years working at the Mayo Clinic but was drawn to the center by the chance to be part of a completely new institution. "It's very rare that there's a new university and a totally new program," he says. "For someone who's interested in education, the idea that you can start anew to build a curriculum and not have that be an afterthought while you're supposed to be doing discipline-focused research is very appealing."

Hired on as a chemistry instructor, Larsen's primary responsibility is to coordinate and teach labs, but he will also spend 10 hours each week at Just ASK, a lounge where instructors will be available to help students with their work. "A big part of my function here is being available to answer students' questions," he says. "There's going to be an expectation of a lot of outside study, for students to really understand the concepts outside the classtime and then for the faculty to use classes as a time for practicum."

Taniguchi, the writing instructor, will spend 14 hours a week at Just ASK, as will Cynthia Lehmkuhle, a math instructor. The idea, Taniguchi says, is less about tutoring than about early intervention, helping students before they start to struggle. "We want students to be able to come in and get help at every step of an assignment," she says. "We want them to make sure they understand something or have written something clearly before it gets to the point where they have a big assignment that they can't handle."

Neuhauser describes Just ASK as the core of "a student-based faculty" and though students are central to CLI's mission, they are also a means to an end, the subjects of a larger experiment she and her team hope will reach far beyond their corner of southeast Minnesota.

"We want what we experience here to be something we can give to the world," mathematician Huq says. "We're all a part of a broader data set on learning that can hopefully improve education for us all."


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