The Biology Department at Western Washington University serves approximately 550 majors. At the beginning of their degree (Phase I), all students take a core set of 200-level Biology courses designed to introduce them to the breadth of biological subdisciplines. The three courses that make up these basic requirements are:
Biol 204 – Introduction to Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity; Biol 205 – Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology; Biol 206 – Introduction to Organismal Biology. Each course has an associated lab which emphasizes content and laboratory techniques important to the discipline. Concurrent with these Biology courses, students also take a General Chemistry series. To advance as a Phase II Biology major, students must perform well in these core Biology and Chemistry courses.
After completion of the 200-level core courses, Phase II Biology majors continue with a set of 300-level core courses, and one 400-level course, designed to cover major biological subdisciplines in greater depth. These courses are: Biol 321 – Genetics; Biol 323 – Cell and Molecular Biology; Bio 325 – Ecology; and Biol 432 – Evolutionary Biology. Most of our majors also take Biol 340 – Biometrics, although some take a statistics course offered by the Mathematics Department. There are 300-level laboratory courses associated with these courses that many of our students take depending on their area of emphasis (see below). Thus, these breadth requirements build on the framework established in the 200-level courses with an increasing emphasis on science process skills, critical thinking, and analysis of the primary literature.
When students declare Biology as their major, they choose an area of emphasis which leads to depth requirements. These 300-level and 400-level courses are structured to cover specific biological topics in great detail. These courses place emphasis on deep content knowledge, the ability to think and act like a scientist, including designing and executing experiments, and written and oral communication.
Thus, an important aspect of the curriculum in the Biology Department is for the students to develop their cognitive abilities from knowledge acquisition and application to knowledge analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. It is expected that students can achieve the desired intellectual progress by learning more deeply about topics as they recursively return to and focus on topics through the curriculum. They further increase their analytical and evaluative skills by performing ever-more advanced scientific research as they progress from freshman through senior levels. They are also able to communicate scientific principles and conduct research in increasingly sophisticated ways, from simple lab papers to research papers, oral presentations, and scientific posters on independent research.
Program Assessment in the Biology Department is an on-going process that was initiated in the 2008-2009 academic year. At that time, the faculty of the Biology Department worked together to develop content and process learning goals for all Biology students, and we mapped these goals to our core and breadth course (courses that all Biology majors take). This allowed us to assess our curriculum and adjust courses as necessary so that the learning goals were met. Since 2011, the learning goals evolved into the department Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) listed below. These broad SLOs are supported by course-specific learning targets, developed by individual faculty members, and communicated to students on course syllabi.
The publication of Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action (AAAS, 2011) prompted the Biology Department to devote significant time analyzing our curriculum to determine how well it aligns with the content identified in Vision and Change as critical for undergraduates. To do this, we used the BioCore guide, which was developed by Sarah Brownell and her colleagues (Brownell et al., 2014) to assist departments in evaluating their curriculum against the Vision and Change core concepts. This same group of researchers is developing a programmatic assessment, also aligned with Vision and Change, and we are a pilot institution for this project.
We are administering the content assessment at three points in our program: 1) at the beginning of our core series (Biol 204 – Intro to Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity) to assess what our students know when they enter our program, 2) at the end of our core series (Biol 206 – Intro to Organismal Biology) to assess what our students know at the end of our core series, and 3) in a capstone course that most students take as seniors (Biol 432 – Evolutionary Biology) to assess what our students know at the end or our program. Assessing students at these three points allows us to track acquisition of content knowledge, effectively assessing SLOs 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Department Student Learning Outcomes
Upon graduation, Biology majors in each of the following degree programs will:
1. have in-depth knowledge from the major areas of biology (ecology, genetics, evolution, cell and molecular biology, and organismal biology) and be able to integrate principles from these areas.
2. be proficient in a variety of science practices including acquiring laboratory and field skills necessary to answer biological questions, communicating precisely and analytically in written and oral forms, and engaging collaboratively in the scientific process. (this SLO applies to all degree programs)
3. have effective quantitative reasoning skills. (this SLO applies to all degree programs)
4. have knowledge from the major areas of biology (ecology, genetics, evolution, cell and molecular biology, and organismal biology) (instead of SLO #1 above)
5. have knowledge from major areas of biology (genetics, evolution, and organismal biology) and be able to integrate principles from these areas with principles from Biological Anthropology (instead of SLO #1 above)
6. have in-depth knowledge from major areas of biology (ecology, genetics, evolution, and organismal biology) and be able to integrate principles from these areas with principles from Biological Anthropology (instead of SLO #1 above)
7. have in-depth knowledge from major areas of biology (genetics, evolution, cell and molecular biology, and organismal biology) and be able to integrate principles from these areas with principles from Mathematics (instead of SLO #1 above)