UF’s Teri Balser appointed to elite group rethinking undergraduate biology education
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Teri Balser, dean of the University of Florida’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, has been named to a group of 40 elite scholars tasked with re-imagining biology education for U.S. college undergraduates.
Balser was named a Vision and Change Leadership Fellow by the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education, or PULSE. This collaborative effort is funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
PULSE formally announced its selection of Balser and the other fellows on Friday; Balser was the only UF faculty member among the 40.
The fellows were selected from a group of 250 applicants, evaluated on the basis of their experience in catalyzing reform of undergraduate biology education at the level of a division, department or institution.
“Biology and the life sciences, more so than almost any other discipline, has changed in the past few decades,” she said. “But not a whole lot has changed in the way we approach teaching these subjects. We’re trying to align the science we teach in the classroom with the science we do in the lab.”
The fellows will promote modernized biology instruction methods and encourage their adoption by community colleges, liberal arts colleges, universities and other institutions offering college-level courses.
Among other things, the fellows will develop ways to implement findings contained in a 2011 Vision and Change report that Balser helped produce; she became involved in the effort several years ago while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was director of the Institute for Biology Education.
“I got involved because I wanted to change things,” she said. “This is an opportunity to make things happen at the level it needs to happen.”
That level involves not only faculty members but also department chairs, deans, provosts and vice presidents.
Balser said she used to be less optimistic about the chances of convincing higher-ed administrators to make systemic changes in their biology programs. Not anymore. She said there’s now “almost a perfect storm” of conditions that make it easier. Among the conditions are the rising popularity of distance education, advances in the science of genomics and the ongoing debate about the value and accessibility of public education.
“I think people are open to new ideas now,” she said.
Forward thinking was one of the qualities that led Jack Payne, UF’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, to offer Balser the dean’s post. She began work at UF in July 2011. As dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Balser oversees all aspects of the college’s undergraduate and graduate education programs; she also is a professor in the soil and water science department.
Now that the group has been selected, Balser said, they’re expected to deliver recommendations in about one year.
“I hope we come up with something truly innovative and new,” she said.