Published: March 16, 2015 By

As Stanford recognizes CU-Boulder professor for achievements in biomedical research, his work to improve science teaching has ripple effects nationwide 

William “Bill” Wood, CU-Boulder distinguished professor (emeritus) of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (MCDB) was honored by the Stanford University Medical Center Alumni Association in October, receiving the Arthur Kornberg and Paul Berg Lifetime Achievement Award in Biomedical Sciences.

Wood has made significant contributions to the field of microbiology, especially in understanding the genetics of early development and spearheading groundbreaking research into viruses that infect bacteria.

He is also a leader in the nationwide efforts to improve and refashion the way science is taught. After years in teaching, Wood realized that the best students were going to learn “no matter how you teach,” but the real challenge was helping anyone who wanted to learn.

Those students absorbed more through “active learning,” which keeps classrooms engaged and lets instructors know in real time if students understand the material.

Wood has been instrumental in encouraging college instructors to create an active learning environment, rather than deliver straight lectures. Wood helped bring change by leading summer professional development seminars and experimenting on his own classes.

Wood won the National Academy of Sciences prize for molecular biology in 1969. He was one of the youngest members to ever earn election to the academy, at the age of 34.

Wood received his PhD from Stanford in 1963 and did post-doctoral work with Werner Arber on understanding the DNA of bacteriophages and bacteria. Within a year, they generated mutants that were blocked in the ability to degrade foreign DNA and mutants that were blocked in the ability to protect their own DNA.

This work ultimately led to Arber’s winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1978.

William B. Wood, PhD ’64, is Distinguished Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Emeritus, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the 2014 recipient of the Arthur Kornberg and Paul Berg Lifetime Achievement Award in Biomedical Sciences presented by the Stanford University Medical Center Alumni Association.

Shortly after his work with Arber, Wood was influenced by Bob Edgar, a biologist studying the assembly of viruses. Edgar had managed to generate mutants that blocked the T-4 bacteriophage from assembling into a fully formed phage. Wood then took pairs of these bacteriophage systems, both blocked from assembling at different points, and combined them to reconstitute fully formed virus particles in a test tube.

As a result of this success, Wood won the National Academy of Sciences prize for molecular biology in 1969. Wood was one of the youngest members to ever earn election to the academy, at the age of 34.

Rethinking lectures

Wood has been with the University of Colorado Boulder’s MCDB Department since 1975. A widely respected professor and lecturer, Wood says he always had his lectures notes written out and spent a lot of time and effort creating good lectures.

“Students seemed to like it,” says Wood. “The good students did well and went to medical school and so forth.”

Bill WoodBut that wasn’t enough.

“The good students are going to learn no matter how you teach them,” Wood explains.

“I used to focus on those students and let the rest of them do the best they could. Then I changed that attitude. Now I’m more interested in the middle of the class—trying to make sure anyone who really wants to understand this stuff is going to get it.”

In 1999, Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, asked Wood to serve on a National Research Council committee alongside other distinguished scientists examining the Advanced Placement (AP) exams for high school students.

“We looked at the AP bio exam and decided it was pretty bad,” Wood says. “It was really just memorizing a lot of facts, not testing for or demanding a lot of understanding.”

"I used to focus on (good)  students and let the rest of them do the best they could. … Now I’m more interested in the middle of the class—trying to make sure anyone who really wants to understand this stuff is going to get it.”

The scientists reported this to the College Board, and the new AP biology exam was given in 2014 for the first time. The new course lays out specific objectives, emphasizes problem-solving and teaches students how to design an experiment.

Analyzing the AP exam inspired Wood. It reignited his interest in education, something he had not thought a lot about since his own children were being educated and he had read about how children learn.

The National Academy of Sciences set up a professional-development summer institute to help university instructors of biology teach their students more effectively. Wood co-chaired the institute. The week-long pilot camp was hosted at the University of Madison-Wisconsin in summer 2003, and around 20 instructors participated.

Wood was not sure how the institute would be accepted. “In some ways, sitting around talking about pedagogy for a week seems really dull,” Wood says, laughing. “We wanted to see if everybody would fall asleep or if it would be worthwhile.”

The institute turned out to be very successful. “They thought it was fantastic,” says Wood. “One of the best meetings they had been at—and it was really fun.”

In 2004, the institute began the week-long, intensive seminar in earnest. Teams of junior and senior instructors from research-intensive universities traveled to Madison to learn how to foster a more active learning environment for their students.

The Carnegie Hall principle

Jenny Knight, an MCDB professor at CU-Boulder, spent her post-doctoral fellowship under Wood. After her fellowship, she became Wood’s colleague and worked with him to transform science teaching at the university level.

Knight and Wood were co-teaching a large upper-division course to MCDB students and realized they weren’t employing active learning strategies in their own classroom, so they ran an experiment.

During the next semester they substituted roughly a third of the lecture material for clicker questions and other interactive tools such as group discussions. Learning rose by 30 percent.

“We designed an exam to test conceptual subject matter to measure actual gains in understanding,” explains Wood. They gave the exam at the beginning and end of the semester and tested their traditionally taught, lecture-based class first.

During the next semester they substituted roughly a third of the lecture material for clicker questions and other interactive tools such as group discussions. Wood and Knight were surprised by the results:

Learning rose by 30 percent.

From there, the summer institutes took off, receiving additional funding and growing to more than six regional institutes across America each summer. Knight and Wood both note that it’s now being opened to instructors from junior, community and teaching colleges, as well as to instructors in chemistry, biochemistry and physics.

“It’s grown from 30 to 30 times six instructors going through the program,” notes Knight. “And the institute celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.”

Wood and Knight both emphasize the importance of practice with science, and the active learning method of teaching gives students that opportunity.

“Active learning is based on the ‘Carnegie Hall Principle,'” Wood says, explaining:

“This tourist is in New York and hollers at a passing cab driver, ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ The cab driver says ‘Practice.’ If you want students to be able to solve problems and analyze experimental data, you have to practice the skill.”

Wood knows it’s hard for instructors to change the way they’ve taught for many years. When Knight and Wood changed the material in their course, he worried about losing control of the class.

But, “It’s more rewarding,” says Knight. “It’s something Bill noticed right away.”

Wood agrees. “This is so much more fun, to actually interact with a class, get some feedback, and finally know how much they are or aren’t understanding,” he remarks. “I was getting pretty tired of hearing myself lecture after 30 years of it.”

Knight largely credits Wood with mainstreaming the transition to teaching science in an active learning environment. “I think Bill was one of the champions of that change, with his stature as a very famous scientist, he could go places and talk to faculty who were stuck in the old way,” explains Knight.

“It was his bearing as a really amazing scientist that got a lot of people on board. It really made a big difference.”

Ultimately, Wood’s two passions—for scientific research and discovery and for teaching—marry each other well. His prestigious reputation in biomedical research, for which he was recognized with the lifetime achievement award from Stanford, earned him the respect and attention necessary to influence change in classroom science teaching.

Wood’s passion for motivating and engaging students encouraged them to really understand scientific concepts and has helped to ensure that every willing student has an opportunity to understand and excel.

Magdalena Rost, a student majoring in classics and English, is an intern for Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine.