2013 COMBIO Education Sessions – report

The 2013 COMBIO meeting held in Perth Convention Centre between 29 of November and 3rd of October had two education sessions organized by Teaching Representatives from both the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and the Australian Society of Plant Scientists (ASPS), Janet Macaulay and Gonzalo Estavillo, respectively. The education workshop was at lunchtime on Monday 30th of September day and the education symposium was in a concurrent session on the final day of the conference.

Approximately 40 people gave up their lunchtime on the first day of the conference to attend the session which was chaired by Gonzalo Estavillo (ANU) and Peter Arthur (UWA). Phil Poronnik (University of Sydney) started off the education workshop with a stimulating talk raising many of the current issues facing higher education including the recent advent of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) which many view as a disruptive force in higher education but one which is here to stay. Liz Johnson (Latrobe University) then followed with a discussion of the process and drivers for curriculum reform. Liz has lead curriculum renewal in her faculty and has an OLT fellowship to work with the Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS) establishing engagement with the ACDS Teaching and Learning Centre.

The next three speakers discussed engaging interactive learning activities they had introduced in their courses. Ros Gleadow (Monash University) discussed scaffolding a student learning activity designed to address the difficulties many undergraduates face with writing. Susan Howitt (ANU) presented a full semester research project undertaken by a second year class of 200 students which develops research skills by providing an authentic research experience. In the final presentation of the workshop, Anne Galea (UNSW) described three different learning and assessment strategies developed for large first and second year biology courses that address the challenges of providing formative assessment and thorough qualitative feedback to large classes.

The ASBMB and ASPS education award winners presented in the Thursday education symposium which was chaired by Janet Macaulay (Monash) and Ros Gleadow (Monash). Danny Liu (U of Sydney), recipient of the ASPS Teaching Award, discussed plant-based student-centred practical sessions that were designed and implemented into two introductory biology courses (enrolments of over 600 students each) with the aim of instilling in students a sense of scientific discovery and an interest in plant science. Danny implemented low cost and technology driven ideas to adapt resources for large classes, and at the same time teaching students core concepts in biology. The activities were well planned, engaging and very well received by students. The student enrolments in the second year plant units have now increased significantly. Louise Lutze-Mann the recipient of the ASBMB Education Award gave a very interesting presentation entitled “Tell me and I’ll forget”. Louise discussed three active learning strategies she has introduced into her teaching to enhance student understanding. These include formative assessment in lectures using mobile response devices, virtual laboratory activities and student-led game design. Louise gave a great presentation and her enthusiasm for teaching was readily evident. This was followed by Sue Barker (UWA) discussing an authentic research activity using the national “Climate Watch” program by first year students. Students entered their own data about phenological response of Australia’s plants and animals on the Climate Watch website and then wrote scientific articles based on their analysis of available datasets. Sue reported that the students’ interest and engagement with the environment increased after the assignment(s). Patrick Schaffer then presented a framework he developed for a third year Biotechnology course that drives learning in a way that enables students to apply their knowledge and skills with confidence in the laboratory. Patrick has paid particular attention to early identification of students who may have problems applying theoretical knowledge and skills in the laboratory and found a significant improvement in the exam pass rate. The final speaker in the symposium was Peter Arthur (UWA) who discussed a quantitative approach being developed to enable identification of areas of teaching delivery and student understanding to guide improvements.

Both sessions were well attended with discussions continuing after the sessions. In addition to the workshop and symposium four posters were presented on education covering development of engaging inquiry based practicals, evaluation of students’ quantitative skills and the Biomedical Science Threshold Learning Outcomes.


Janet Macaulay, Chair, ASBMB Biochemical Education Special Interest Group

Gonzalo Estavillo, Teaching Representative, ASPS