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Profs awarded grant for innovative teaching method

August 29, 2013

A new grant from the National Science Foundation has been awarded to two Colorado State University professors for their innovative approach to teaching the foundational life sciences.

Meena BalgopalMeena Balgopal, an assistant professor in the School of Education and principal investigator, and co-PI Paul Laybourn, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, were awarded a $200,000 two-year grant to improve students’ learning and engagement in courses like cell biology.


The instructional method, known as writing-to-learn, guides students in identifying scientifically relevant evidence in reading, lectures, class discussions and personal experiences as they explore socio-scientific issues. The iterative writing activities help students organize their evidence before writing persuasive essays about cancer treatments. The current project is an extension of Balgopal’s previous NSF grant project in which she developed the writing model in small undergraduate biology laboratory classes. The current study will be conducted in lecture-based classes with 80-200 students using electronic platforms, like Writing@CSU and Electronic Blackboard, and will integrate peer evaluation strategies.

Paul Laybourn“The hope is to keep students engaged, to increase student retention in life sciences majors, and to increase the overall understanding and retention of the material,” said Laybourn.

“Writing-to-learn is different than writing-to-communicate because it centers on organizational writing activities and not on the final product, like a lab report. We want students to evaluate what they are writing about and to develop evidence-based claims,” Balgopal explained.

Students’ learning gains will be measured using a standardized test developed internationally and compared to control classes. The advisory board includes Mike Palmquist from TILT and Sue Doe and Kate Kiefer from the Department of English.

The grant is shared between the Minnesota State University Moorhead, White Earth Tribal College and Colorado State University.