This entry is part 8 of 29 in the series Fall - 2016


by Anne Manning

Until a few years ago, Paul Laybourn was a self-described “standard” university professor – running a lab, giving lectures, publishing research. Somewhere along the way, he decided he could make a bigger impact in the classroom.

Laybourn, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, became a DBER (Discipline-Based Education Researcher) – an educator embedded in a specific field who studies best pedagogical practices within that field.

“I’d always been passionate about teaching, and I had tried hard to teach well – which was mostly a matter of organization and caring,” said Laybourn, who has also conducted research in gene regulation in chromatin, T-cells, leukemia, and retroviruses. “I hadn’t really thought about teaching as an area of scholarship or research.”

The interest was sparked when Laybourn applied for a TILT (The Institute for Learning and Teaching) course redesign grant about nine years ago. Laybourn’s eyes were opened to the growing need for innovative, engaged, dedicated teacher-scholars to help retain students in the sciences.

Since then, Laybourn has developed fresh ideas for engaging students more deeply in the major tenets of eukaryotic cell biology. Moving away from traditional lecturing, Laybourn has experimented with the “flipped classroom” model, forcing students to interact with the material, not just listen to it. He has worked to completely restructure how the LIFE 210 course is taught, incorporating everything from iClickers for gauging students’ grasp of concepts to making 3-D-printed models of protein molecules for students to see, hold, and manipulate.

Laybourn has his LIFE 210 students write letters to loved ones about cancer biology to help students connect with the science and think about how it impacts people. This initiative resulted, in part, from a National Science Foundation grant called “Writing to Learn” that Laybourn was awarded with collaborators at CSU and Minnesota State University.

Since the late 1990s, LIFE 210 enrollment has increased from around 50 to more than 300. It is a core requirement for biochemistry majors and is a foundational course for other life science majors.

Laybourn strongly supports efforts to diversify the sciences. He wants to see women, minorities, and traditionally underrepresented groups stay in the pipeline to science careers. To this end, Laybourn was a fellow in the University’s inaugural Faculty Institute for Inclusive Excellence, which seeks to create an environment of diversity and inclusion on campus through transformational teaching. He also works with TILT on developing learning analytics, aimed at identifying best teaching practices.

“In life sciences in particular, the model has always been that we just have them memorize stuff,” Laybourn said. “But for them to actually get it, to internalize it, to carry it forward – that’s what it’s all about”