Plenary Speaker Profile (2008-9)
Michael Klymkowsky
Professor of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and Co-Director of CU Teach at the University of Colorado, Boulder
University of Colorado
Understanding evolution: a multidisciplinary educational challenge

While evolutionary theory, as put forth by Darwin and Wallace 150 years ago, is simple, logical, and based on readily observable facts, understanding how evolution works at the molecular level is difficult, since it requires an appreciation of how random changes in genes can lead to useful adaptations at the organismic level. Without such an understanding, students, and most importantly students training to teach K12 science, are left with a fragile and vulnerable belief in, rather than a robust understanding of, evolutionary processes. Yet, it is all too common to find that biology curricula fail to provide students with the conceptual foundations necessary to understand the nuts and bolts of evolution. Topics such as the creative effects of genetic drift, the mechanism(s) by which mutations produce novel activities, the entropy-driven effects that determine molecular and cellular structure, the ubiquity of gene and genome duplication, together with the formation of chimeric genes, and their roles in facilitating evolutionary novelty, are rarely presented. The problem is not, however, restricted to biology; the physics and chemistry courses required of biology students either do not present, or fail to cultivate a clear understanding of critical concepts needed for an authentic understanding of the structure, behavior, and evolution of biological systems. Topics such as thermodynamics (e.g. energy conservation and entropy as a form of energy), statistical mechanics (associated with diffusive processes and a source of energy for bond breaking), network behavior (involved in adaptive and homeostatic processes), and the energetics of bond formation are typically reserved for "upper division" courses or are presented in a manner that generates more, rather than less confusion. I will present some thoughts as to how this situation can be addressed through course and curricular analysis, conceptual assessments (such as the Biology Concept Inventory), and more effective teaching strategies.

Dr. Klymkowsky has published over 95 papers in the areas of cell and developmental biology, and more recently in biology education. He was an editor and writer of The Dynamic Cell, an interactive CD-ROM tour of the cell, a developer of the Working with the Literature website for the text Molecular Cell Biology (Lodish et al), answered student questions through the MadScientist website, and has developed a number of virtual laboratories. Dr. Klymkowsky is interested in the issues surrounding the identification of conceptual barriers to robust learning in the biological sciences, and the sciences in general, as well as the development of more effective strategies to promote such learning. He is the co-developer of a research based instrument, the Biology Concept Inventory (BCI), which has been used to identify key areas that are often overlooked that need to be address to truly accept the plausibility of evolutionary mechanisms and a coherent understanding of biological systems. Dr. Klymkowsky has become increasingly involved in the general issue of the recruitment and training of K-12 science teach- ers, particularly from the perspective of the effectiveness of the undergraduate curriculum and is co-developing a course on teaching and learning biology. Over the years, his research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Pew Foundation, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society. Dr. Klymkowsky earned his Ph.D. in Biophysics from California Institute of Technology.