William B. Wood Awarded 2013
By Marsha E. Lucas
2013 Society for Developmental Biology
Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Prize was
William B. Wood for his outstanding
contributions to developmental biology education.
The University of Colorado, Boulder Distinguished
Professor Emeritus has long championed improving
science education through active learning methods.
“I'm tremendously honored and pleased by [the
Hamburger Award], partly because it puts me in such
excellent company,” Wood said in a recent interview.
He chaired the SDB Professional Development and
Education committee for six years (2003-2009),
presenting this award to many great educators. “It's
really an honor to be getting this now,” he said.
Wood began his career as a bacteriophage geneticist.
He earned his PhD in biochemistry in 1963 with Nobel
Paul Berg at Stanford University before joining
the faculty of the California Institute of
Technology. In 1972, Wood was elected to the
National Academy of Sciences for his genetic
dissection of the mechanism underlying phage
assembly. He is also a member of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Wood said science education reform was a focus for
him from the beginning. “When I started teaching at
Caltech, I was assigned to teach a biochemistry
course. Biochemistry at that point was being taught
as a collection of facts students memorized.
Textbooks were getting bigger and bigger every year
and students were supposed to memorize a whole lot
of structures and enzymatic pathways without too
much regard, in my experience at least, for the
biology of what was going on.”
Inspired by educational revolutionaries of the
John Holt who emphasized that children learn by
doing things, not passively sitting and being told
things, Wood developed a biochemistry course
centered on problem solving instead of memorization.
It got students to think about how cells actually
use biochemical pathways to function. This led to
the publication, with colleagues Leroy Hood and John
Wilson, of the textbook, Biochemistry: A Problems
Approach in 1974.
Following a sabbatical at the University of
Colorado, Boulder in 1975, Wood switched his
research interest from phage genetics to C. elegans
development, looking to get in on the ground floor
of this great new organism, he said. He went on to
join the CU Boulder faculty and took a genetic
approach to studying how cell fates and patterns are
determined during embryonic development in the
Wood spent the next two decades teaching and doing
research before making the leap to science education
on a national scale. In the late 90s, Wood served as
the biology representative on a National Research
Council (NRC) panel to evaluate the Advanced
Placement (AP) programs in high schools. The panel
of professional educators, university faculty, and
high school teachers examined ways in which advanced
study programs could be made more effective and more
accessible to all students. “I gradually learned to
understand the educators,” Wood said. They had
knowledge about how people learn that could be
applied in the classroom. The two-year study ended
with the report
Learning and Understanding published in 2002
by the National Academies.
The next year, in response to the NRC report
Bio2010, Wood and
James Gentile co-chaired an
NRC committee tasked with initiating the
National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate
Education. Its goal, Wood said, “was to provide
a professional development workshop for college
level instructors that would introduce them to the
new pedagogy and new ideas about teaching and try to
move them away from traditional lecturing and toward
more active learning.”
Wood feared a workshop on pedagogy might be a
“crashing bore,” but a
pilot workshop held in 2003
turned out to be “a very exciting meeting.”
Consequently, the Summer Institute has continued for
the past ten years under the co-direction of Wood
Jo Handelsman, with nearly a thousand educators
going through the program.
Wood and his former postdoc,
Jennifer Knight, now a Senior Instructor at CU
Boulder, revamped their developmental biology course
in 2004. The classroom became their lab as they
implemented lessons learned from the Summer
Institute. “We found it's much more difficult than
bench research, to do a controlled experiment,” Wood
said. “But, it was the same instructors, same
material, same syllabus, just taught in a different
They cut out about one-third of their lecture time
and used it for clicker questions and other active
learning exercises including group discussions.
Clickers excited Wood because “you could get instant
feedback from a large group of students and actually
have a dialogue with the group...find out whether
they were understanding what you were trying to
explain to them,” he said. It got people engaged.
Knight and Wood showed that student learning
gains were significantly higher in their interactive
developmental biology course compared to their
standard lecture course.
Since retiring from CU Boulder in 2008, Wood has
focused almost exclusively on biology education.
From 2005-2010 he was editor-in-chief of the biology
Sciences Education. The journal was designed to
help scientists who were not trained as educators,
but were working on educational issues, publish
respectable papers that would be accepted by the
education community, he said.
In 2004 Wood was awarded the Bruce Alberts Award of
the American Society for Cell Biology for his
distinguished contributions to science education. It
Alberts who initially encouraged Wood to serve
on the NRC panel. “He's been a major force in kind
of pushing me for involvement with educational
issues and he's always been tremendously supportive
and appreciative about things that we did,” he said.
Carl Wieman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist,
has also been a mentor for Wood in the science
education realm. “He's one of the smartest people
I've ever met, but also has a real passion for—and
understanding of—how people learn,” Wood said.
“The day we first showed you could put phage
together in the test tube” was one of Wood's most
exciting moments as a scientist. His excitement as a
teacher comes from helping students grasp difficult
concepts. It's rewarding to see “evidence that
students are getting things—getting excited about
learning [and] getting excited about science.”