Fairfield University integrates high-tech into biology course thanks to a $200K grant from the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign


Fairfield University has transformed its General Biology course and the way students learn through the use of sophisticated wireless technology and Macintosh laptop computers known as iBooks. Fairfield University is one of only 30 institutions nationwide to be awarded a $200,000 grant from the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign. This program, managed by the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is demonstrating the power of information technology to increase the quality of student learning while reducing the cost of instruction.

Fairfield's project has three primary goals. It will establish interactive student-centered learning environments in both the classroom and the laboratory, facilitate the transfer of information, and expose students to the wealth of biological information available today. The expectation is that students will explore these resources and retain their knowledge longer through active involvement in their learning.

The School of Nursing auditorium and the biology labs in the Bannow Science Center have been transformed into interactive computerized learning environments. The redesigned course takes advantage of the Internet and the many software modules currently on the market.

Malcolm Hill, project co-director said, "This technology is revolutionizing the way we teach biology. It allows students to have Internet access and use international databases in the classroom. It opens a lot of avenues because there are so many software modules available to us. Students and faculty are becoming more and more interested in how these tools might be applied in and out of class."

Project co-director Shelley Phelan agrees. "Biology is an incredibly exciting field today and this grant will allow us to create a truly dynamic experience for our students. The use of animation and video within the lecture should greatly enhance the understanding of the material. The interactive learning environment will give the students a much more active role in the classroom," Phelan said.

The biology project has begun to use the technology in both lecture and lab, and the results have been impressive. During a section on comparative anatomy, students took advantage of several online dissection Web sites during the regular lab meeting time and, later, in their dorm rooms. The use of iBooks has transformed the lecture into an interactive guided discovery session.

"Watching close to 50 iBooks being used in the lecture was amazing. Our discussions of taxonomy have always been difficult because the students have a hard time relating to the material. But the Web-based activity we did in class ignited some genuine interest around this topic," commented Hill.

In addition to improving the quality of instruction, the redesign, when completed, is anticipated to reduce the cost-per-student from $506 to $350, a savings of 31 percent. Faculty will not have to design anew every lecture and will be able to spend more time working directly with students.

The biology project dovetails with the recently funded Davis Educational Foundation and the E.L. Cord Foundation grants, which awarded Fairfield University $245,000 to redesign the economics and mathematics curricula using technology to reduce costs. The two projects joined forces this summer in a conference where all three disciplines, as well as participants from other colleges and universities, discussed issues associated with incorporating technology into the curriculum.

About the Center for Academic Transformation
The mission of the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer is to serve as a source of expertise and support for those in higher education who wish to take advantage of the capabilities of information technology to transform their academic practices. The Center manages the Pew Learning and Technology Program, an $8.8 million, four-year effort. Its goal is to place the national discussion about the impact that new technologies are having on the nation's campuses in the context of student learning and ways to achieve this learning cost-effectively.

About Rensselaer
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is the nation's oldest technological university. The school offers degrees in engineering, the sciences, information technology, architecture, management, and the humanities and social sciences. Institute programs serve undergraduates, graduate students, and working professionals around the world. Rensselaer faculty are known for pre-eminence in research conducted in a wide range of research centers that are characterized by strong industry partnerships. The Institute is especially well known for its success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace so that new discoveries and inventions benefit human life, protect the environment, and strengthen economic development.

Contact: Carol A. Twigg, executive director, Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer (518) 695-5320 or twiggc@rpi.edu or Nancy Habetz, director of media relations, Fairfield University, (203) 254-4190.

Contact: Patricia Azriel, (518) 276-6098, azriep@rpi.edu

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on September 15, 2001