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Two NMSU biology professors receive Education Fellow in Life Sciences award

Through workshops and innovative teaching ventures, Graciela Unguez, associate professor and Michèle Shuster, assistant professor in the Department of Biology at New Mexico State University's College of Arts and Sciences hope to share teaching ideas with others in their department and across campus to transform the science education experience of students at the university level.



New Mexico State University assistant professor of biology Michèle Shuster applies principles learned from a summer institute in her classroom. She was recently named as one of two fellows in life sciences at NMSU for the current academic year. (NMSU Photo by Harrison Brooks)

The National Academies Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering and Medicine honors Unguez and Shuster as fellows in life sciences for the current academic year. Fifty-one faculty members from 22 universities in the U.S. received this honor.

Unguez and Shuster receive this recognition by virtue of their selection and participation in the 2008 National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology that took place last summer in Madison, Wis. In four days, Unguez and Shuster participated in presentations, discussions, intensive group work and other activities, all focused on enhancing undergraduate education.

"We can't teach science the same way we were taught. Sometimes introductory level courses that are lecture-formatted aren't always effective," Unguez said. At the summer institute, all participants who attended were encouraged to make lessons more interactive and relevant for a changing generation of students who have been exposed to hands-on technological activities such as answering quiz questions in a game show format or group assignments instead of lectures.

"It's reinvigorating and more about teaching than pure, basic research," Shuster said. While it's too early to analyze data on student success rates, Shuster said she has seen a boost on the mean score for the cellular respiration exam, which has been known to be a challenge for many of her students in her past seven years of teaching at NMSU. The professors have also organized a guest lecturer series that is open to students and the public.

"We'll have to see what happens next semester then analyze to see if our teaching techniques achieved the desired learning outcomes and increased the students' interest in science," Shuster said.

Shuster and Unguez will work towards continuing the mission of The National Academies to "start fires" and get undergraduates across the country excited about learning science and eventually place them in jobs in the field.

Support for this summer institute is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; the Research Corporation for Science Advancement; the Presidents' Committee of the National Research Council and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Unguez will return to the institute this summer to serve as a discussion facilitator.