HHMI Professors

Graham Walker, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In the fall of 2002, 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.


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.


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.

We also began using concept questions in recitation sections. The questions were prepared by the students before section and related the biology topic of the day to real life.

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.


Overall, our general strategy was to change introductory biology from a class based on the memorization of facts to a class focusing on the understanding of concepts. The creation of the Biology Concept Inventory has altered the way we view biological concepts. It has become a very effective way to organize our thoughts and teaching styles so as to emphasize the need to really understand biology as an integrated science and not as a list of isolated facts. The logic of the BCF led us to develop a number of concept-driven teaching resources, like the personalized problem sets, section concept questions, and the voluntary lab. Some students make connnections more effectively in the lab, while other students find working through theoretical problems alone better. Each of these activities varies in its effectiveness, but the underlying conclusion is always the same. The more students practice concept-driven activities, the better they understand the connections between biological topics and the science of biology as a whole. The BCF has imprinted us with a new way of thinking that we are now trying to apply not only to college, but to high school level biology teaching as well and it seems incorporation of a wide variety of concept-driven exercises is the most effective way to reach all students.

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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