Biology “boot camp” to help incoming students through maze of UW-Madison biology

May 20, 2010 By David Tenenbaum

Incoming biology students at University of Wisconsin–Madison will get extensive new help navigating the tricky transition from high school to a university that has 31 different majors related to biology, funded by a $1.4 million undergraduate science education grant announced today by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“This is a first-year program, to help students get their feet under them and figure out what direction they want to go,” says Teri Balser, an associate professor of soil science and director of the Institute for Cross-college Biology Education.

She adds: “We have 1,600 incoming biology students, facing a complex educational environment. We want to get them oriented to the university, where 60 departments, in seven schools and colleges teach different aspects of biology. And at the same time, first-year students are making the difficult transition from high school to college: they need to learn time management and decision-making in the midst of a challenging academic load.”

For about 100 incoming students, the new program will start with “Mad Bio Boot Camp,” a one-week pre-college experience that will function as a joint introduction to campus biology and campus life, says Balser, who heads the new program, Foundations in Biology.

During the fall semester, students can enroll in “Exploring Biology,” which will feature panels drawn from some of the university’s far-flung biological empire, discussing subjects that may range from plant geography to stem cells to biofuels.

“We piloted Exploring Biology last fall, and we know it benefited students tremendously, helped them realize why they wanted biology majors, and which biology major they wanted to choose,” Balser says.

A third component of the four-year program will offer guidance to graduate students, professors and others who are in a position to mentor young biology students.

“We want to help faculty and graduate students learn more about advising and working with first-year students,” she adds.

To meet the varied needs of incoming biology students, the new program includes the Institute for Cross-college Biology Education, UW–Madison’s Center for the First Year Experience, and University Housing.

“We are interested in the whole student, not just in academic development, and the grant reviewers were impressed that this unusual partnership will combine for the overall benefit of the student,” she says.

Due to the difficulty of the course work, science students tend to have a lower grade-point average than others on campus.

“It’s a challenge for new students,” says Balser. “They have to balance these demanding courses with their own personal life, establishing new identities, while they are making more decisions by themselves. By demystifying some of their choices here on campus, and helping would-be leaders and mentors understand their situation, we hope to ease the transition to a successful college career. We want to build a foundation for a successful college experience, and we want to do it as quickly as possible.”