Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Department of Biology

Graham Walker's

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Education Group

In the fall of 2003, Graham Walker was named one of 20 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors. HHMI created these awards to encourage research scientists to bring their creativity to the classroom to make biology more engaging to undergraduates. Since receiving the award, Graham has used the funds provided to establish an "HHMI Education Group" that is conceptually analogous to his Research Group. This website chronicles our experiment of founding an Education Group, the process and products of our curriculum development efforts, and the additional education activities of our Education Group members.


1. To train scientist-educators.

2. To develop tools and curriculum that improve the teaching of introductory biology.


For his entire career, Graham has "balanced on a tightrope" between devoting time to his research career and his efforts in undergraduate education. By bringing together a group of people interested in teaching and educational development, young scientists could receive training and support for their educational efforts, and mentoring on how to walk that tightrope. Also, as with a scientific group, the diversity of interests and talents could lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At MIT, like many other universities, large lectures are a reality in Introductory Biology courses. This format often makes it very challenging to present material in a manner that will give students the sense of discovery and excitement, like that experienced in advanced undergraduate labs or research. The group therefore focuses its curriculum development activities on creating teaching tools that help make biology come alive for the students in lecture courses.

Coverage in the MIT press: The start of the Ed Group

Coverage in the MIT press: HHMI High School Field Trip 2003

Coverage by the Boston Globe: MCAS Science Exam

Coverage by MIT press 2005: HHMI Science teacher workshop


The Education Group consists of a wide variety of people with one common interest: improving undergraduate biology education. We are professors, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates. Some of the members work full-time on multiple projects, some get involved in one or two projects of particular interest, and some members just attend Education Group meetings. Any level of involvement is an asset to the group.

The Education Group meets approximately every three weeks and welcomes anyone in the Greater Boston area interested in thinking and talking about biology education. To find out when the next meeting will be, please contact Graham Walker at

More about Members of the Education Group

Members of the Extended Education Group

More about Education Group Meetings

"Founding this group has been one of the most stimulating things I have done in my professional career. I am overwhelmed by the excitement and intellectual energy it has generated. I have likened the experience to 'dropping a seed crystal into a saturated solution of education'."


The funds provided with this award are enabling me to try experiments in education resembling those carried out my own research lab, which utilizes many techniques common to modern biological research. For the most part, these experiments involve an initial attempt, successive cycles of redesigning the experiment and testing its implications, and then ultimately repeating a final version that becomes the one published in the scientific literature. Formal evaluation is not needed for the majority of such day-to-day experiments since their success or failure is usually so obvious. Lots of ideas are tried and many are discarded during this process, just as they are in a research lab. It is my hope that the analogous cycles of redesign and intellectual progression that we are using in our educational research may lead to some novel and useful contributions that might not have emerged from the traditional approaches used in educational research.

Graham Walker's Laboratory Website

Graham Walker's HHMI Professor Website

HHMI Education Group Activities, click to enlarge.
HHMI Education Group Activities, click to enlarge.


Members of the Education Group are engaged in four categories of activities (labeled in blue on the diagram above) that promote the major goals of the group: teaching opportunities; thinking, learning, and talking about education; student-centered teaching tools; and outreach activities. We nurture the development of scientist-educators by providing opportunities for teaching and an environment in which to think, learn, and discuss ideas about biology education. We develop teaching tools that are student-centered to improve learning in large biology lecture courses. In designing particular curriculum projects, we are further motivated by pedagogical principles, a desire to make learning more active, and the opportunity to use technology to enhance student learning of biology. Our work to improve biology teaching includes not only undergraduates, but also, high school students through outreach activities. Click on the diagram to expand.


When training to be a scientist, there are occasional opportunities to teach biology, but they are often limited in scope and responsibility. The Education Group is a resource for graduate students and postdocs looking for more opportunities to become engaged in teaching at the undergraduate or high school level. Being a full-time member of the Education Group allows one to focus intensely on biology education and gain invaluable experience for a career that involves not only research, but also, teaching. For those actively engaged in research, participation in the Education Group also provides a variety of part-time or one-day opportunities for teaching biology.

Teaching opportunities include:

The full-time postdoctoral associates each served as a teaching assistant for an Introductory Biology class at MIT. This allows the postdocs to learn the course inside and out and generate ideas about what teaching tools to develop or changes to suggest. In the Spring of 2005, Julia Khodor will function as the instructor for one of the introductory courses, 7.014.

Two postdoctoral fellows, Dina Gould Halme and Julia Khodor, developed and taught a voluntary laboratory component for the introductory course. In September of 2004, Melissa Kosinski-Collins took Dina's place as co-instructor of this course.

The postdocs also have the opportunity to teach an Advanced Undergraduate Seminar on the topic of their choosing. Information about and the syllabus for Dina Gould Halme's seminar on Immune Evasion by Sneaky Pathogens and Melissa Kosinski-Collins' course on Protein Folding, Misfolding, and Human Disease are available through MIT's OpenCourseWare project. The syllabus for Melissa Kosinski-Collins and Peter Weigele's course on Nanolife: An Introduction to Virus Structure and Assembly is available online.

In addition to traditional MIT undergraduate courses, all three post docs have had the opportunity to lead an independent activites period class entitled "When Good Biology Goes Bad at the Movies."

For Education Group members who do not have as much time to commit to teaching, there are opportunities to teach high school students during the High School Field Trip to MIT.

The core members of the group have also designed a workshop for post doctoral associates to be taught at NICHD entitled Teaching Biology in the 21st Century.


One of the particularly satisfying benefits of founding the Education Group has been the creation of a highly stimulating intellectual environment in which to discuss ideas about biology education. Simply bringing people with this common interest together sparked many debates about pedagogy and learning that would otherwise never have occurred.

Opportunities for learning and thinking about biology education include:

Education Group meetings are held approximately every three weeks during the academic year. Education Group members report on their projects or are invited to speak on particular topics.

A journal club has been formed that includes not only Education Group members but also members of the Teaching and Learning Laboratory and the Teacher Education Program. Club members take turns selecting articles and leading a discussion of the article and topic.

A new series of special seminars has been sponsored by the Education Group funds entitled "Innovations in Undergraduate Biology Education." There have been two very successfull seminars so far and more are being planned for the upcoming year.

Education Group members have been invited to participate in Education meetings. Some of these meetings have focused solely on biology education while others have encompassed other fields and focused on more general educational issues.


Our curriculm development activities have focused on improving the the large lecture format of introductory biology. As a result, we have produced curricular materials and strategies for teaching that bring the excitement of biology research to students and provide the students with a sense of individual involvement in their learning.

Highlighted projects include:

Pedagogical Motivation:

A Biology Concept Framework was created that placed the vast number of concepts and details being taught in Introductory Biology in a hierarchical and cross-referenced framework.

We began designing "personalized" problem sets in which each student answer questions that cover the same conceptual material as their classmates, but with different particulars. Therefore, students can work in groups but still produce their own work.

Make learning more active:

In-class demonstrations and experiments that ground abstract concepts in reality by allowing students to see, touch, and smell biology reagents in the context of experimental design and interpretation were developed.

The in-class demonstrations were expanded to create a voluntary laboratory component in which the students could delve more deeply into hands-on activities and explore the connections between different topics in the course.

In collaboration with the teacher education program at MIT, we developed an exercise in which the students used wearable computers to participate in a simulation of genetics experiments.

Using technology to fill a need:

Graham Walker's use of images and video clips to enhance his lectures by sharing the excitement of biology with students.

Student use of a computer program that generates 3D representations of protein structures. The students were able to manipulate the structures and use the information they gleaned to learn about basic biochemical principles.

The creation of interactive lecture interfaces to allow students to explore protein structure and function outside of the classroom environment and on their own time frame.

Computer animations were created that help students understand basic biological processes by focusing on the key concepts rather than stressing details.


Almost all of the tools and resources developed by members of the education group are available for use by others in the field. We have begun publishing our work in educational journals so that our development may be more accesible to educators around the world.

Presentations at meetings:

Members of the education group have been invited to several meeting and conferences and asked to present their work.

Educational journals:

Some of our educational developments have been published in journals specializing in higher education. The Biology Concept Framework was published in the Fall of 2005 in the Journal of Higher Education. The manuscript describing the introductory biology lab course will be published shortly as well.

Text books:

During his time as an HHMI Education faculty, Graham has co-authored a DNA damage and repair text book.


The members of the education group became involved in several high school outreach projects. As a result of working with high school students and their teachers, we came to understand that many of the teaching tools we develop for Introductory Biology at MIT can be used in the high school classroom with minor modifications. We also realized that our connections to the MIT community could be used as a great resource for providing high school teachers and students with exposure to cutting-edge biology research.

Outreach projects include:

For Students:

Participating in the writing and grading of questions for the USA Biology Olympiad Team selection exams as well as serving as faculty mentors for the National Team.

Creating a "Science Field Trip to MIT" for local area high school teachers and their students that consisted of lectures and laboratory experiences.

Visiting high schools across the region and leading classroom discussions on a variety of topics including Molecular Biology, Genetics, Forensics, Chemistry, and Biochemistry.

Advising and participating in the NSF-initiated effort to reformat the high school AP biology curriculum and exam.

Attempting to reform the current high stakes MCAS science exam in Massachusetts.

Writing a concept-based curriculum inventory for local high school classes.

For Teachers:

Developing and running a Summer Workshop for High School Teachers that brought local teachers to MIT for a week of lectures, laboratory experiments and curriculum development opportunities.

Working with high school teachers to develop exercises to accompany the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Holiday Lecture DVD series.

Participating in MIT's Science and Engineering Program for Teachers (SEPT).

Designing and distributing modifiable high school-level laboratory protocols for teachers to use in the classroom as curricular tools.

We have composed a set of links to other useful educational resources available on the web.

This electronic portfolio was created using the KML Snapshot Tool™, a part of the KEEP Toolkit™,
developed at the Knowledge Media Lab of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
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