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Preceptors Knit Classes Together

Skilled scientists help University of Delaware life sciences students make connections between chemistry and biology

by Celia Henry Arnaud
January 20, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 3

Credit: News Journal
Students in Delaware’s integrated introductory biology and chemistry classes meet in an active-learning studio.
Photo of students in an active-learning studio at the University of Delaware.
Credit: News Journal
Students in Delaware’s integrated introductory biology and chemistry classes meet in an active-learning studio.

Michael Weir spends eight hours a week with his students. Each of his three class sections meets two hours a day, four days a week. But Weir is neither a professor nor a teaching assistant. Instead, he’s one of five preceptors for the integrated introductory biology and chemistry courses launched last semester at the University of Delaware.

Preceptors are practitioners in fields such as pharmacy and nursing who guide students through specialized hands-on learning. Delaware borrowed and tweaked the concept for its new integrated courses.

At Delaware, preceptors are skilled scientists who work alongside the professors and teaching assistants. They are full-time staff members, not adjuncts, who work closely with students and mentor teaching assistants (TAs). And this first time through the combined courses, they’ve been redesigning lab experiments so they integrate chemical and biological concepts and can each be completed in two hours.

What preceptors don’t do is grade students. That task is left to the professors and TAs. Weir likens his relationship to students to that of a “friendly uncle you can come to with problems and who isn’t going to punish you for doing things wrong.” The arrangement allows students to have an interaction with a professional that “doesn’t have to be threatened by an assessment and the outcome of that assessment,” says Alenka Hlousek-Radojcic, a biology professor involved in the program.

Frequent contact with students enables preceptors to get to know their pupils well. Some of Weir’s students have told him that, unlike him, many of their professors don’t know their names. Breonna Martin, another preceptor, has had a similar experience of getting to know students. “I especially like the fact that I am with the students all the time,” she says. “They basically know that they can look for me whenever they’re in this building.”

The preceptors are the linchpin of Delaware’s integrated program, which so far enrolls about half of the university’s undergraduate biology and other life sciences majors. Delaware is not the first university to adopt an integrated approach to science classes, nor the first to use preceptors, but the university has made the concept its own.

Delaware is “making this investment to improve retention and provide a more supportive environment for all students, including historically underrepresented groups,” says John R. Jungck, director of the Interdisciplinary Science Learning Laboratories at Delaware.

The integrated curriculum combines introductory biology and general chemistry for life sciences majors and emphasizes smaller class sizes. (Chemistry majors take a different version of general chemistry.) The starting point for the project was a grant from Howard Hughes Medical Institute directed by biochemistry professor Harold B. (Hal) White III. Its goal was to overcome the long-standing academic tradition of teaching introductory biology and chemistry courses in an uncoordinated way.

“If you look at a freshman biology course, the first half is about the chemistry of life,” White says. The biology professors “talk about a lot of chemistry topics that are not encountered in chemistry courses until much later.” The two courses treat topics differently, and students have a hard time making connections, he says.

The integrated curriculum is intended to help students make those connections. The chemistry course is still being taught in large lecture sections, but everything else—biology lecture, labs, additional sessions—has been integrated.

Students are divided into groups with at most 48 students each. Sections meet four days a week for two hours at a time. Those eight hours encompass biology lecture, lab sessions for both chemistry and biology, and a peer-led chemistry problem-solving session. Depending on the activity, a professor or TA leads the class, but a preceptor is always present.

The classes are held in specially designed facilities in Delaware’s new Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Laboratory, which officially opened in October. Sections meet in a three-room suite—a central studio that accommodates 48 students for group-learning activities, flanked by chemistry and biology labs that accommodate 24 students each. For biology lectures and the problem-solving session, all 48 students meet in the center room. On Wednesday, half of them have chemistry lab and the other half have biology lab. On Friday, they switch. The preceptors help with all these activities.

The chemistry lectures are still taught in large sections of more than 200 students each. Chemistry assistant professor Mark Baillie aspires to find ways of incorporating the preceptors even in such large groups.

“I’m dreaming of the day when we can get these classes into smaller rooms or places where you can have more preceptors,” Baillie says. “The preceptors are all aspiring professors. It’s a godsend to have people who not only have really good content knowledge but also have very high interest in pedagogical advancement for classes like this.”

Much of the preceptors’ time last summer and during the first semester was spent writing and troubleshooting new laboratory experiments that integrate chemical and biological concepts and can be completed in the allotted two hours. “If it takes us about 45 minutes to go through a lab, we think students can do it in two hours,” Martin says.

The team has the first semester under its belt and is now gearing up for the second semester, which starts next month. The plan is to design next semester’s labs during Delaware’s January term.

The team also plans to design assessment tools, Hlousek-Radojcic says. “It’s going to be important to be able to document the effect of the program,” she says. “Based on that, it may be easier to argue one way or the other whether the model really works.”

The success that they’ve already had wouldn’t have been possible without the university’s strong team of preceptors. Five of the six preceptors (five for the integrated biology/chemistry curriculum plus one who works with a more physics-related class) are Ph.D.-level scientists, some of whom also have postdoctoral experience. The sixth has a master’s degree.

Baillie attributes the strong team in part to the weak job market. “The talent pool we had to draw from was fantastic,” he says. “We have a team basically of five extra professors who are helping with this course.”

Jungck and Baillie both hope to help the preceptors meet their larger career goals. “If this is a stepping-stone they’re using on the path to something else, my goal is to make sure that they have as much experience as possible with different aspects of teaching so they can use these experiences to be better teachers,” Baillie says.

Martin plans to stick around, at least for now. “I really enjoy teaching,” she says. “This puts me in a situation where I’m in constant interaction with students,” she adds. “I work every day with small groups of students over and over again. It’s the kind of teaching I prefer.”

Martin, who currently has a master’s degree, assumes that she’ll eventually go back for her Ph.D. “I would like to stay on board to see the program continue to go through paces and improve,” she says. “I know it’s going to take a few years for that to happen.”

Weir hopes to be able to find a position as a professor. “I came from a postdoc that was a pure research position,” he says. “I missed teaching. This is not a permanent career move for me. It’s a step back toward where I want to be eventually.” But he’s glad that he has had this experience. “I’ve learned a lot about teaching. I’ve been able to put a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about into more concrete terms. It is temporary, but to me it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How often do you get to help design a new program from the bottom up?”


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