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William B. Wood Awarded 2013 Hamburger Prize

By Marsha E. Lucas

The 2013 Society for Developmental Biology Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Prize was awarded to 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 Prize winner 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 sixties like 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 nematode.

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 and 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 way.”

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 education journal, CBE-Life 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 was 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.”