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This June, I attended the 2017 Lilly National Conference in Bethesda, Maryland. The Lilly National Conference is an evidence-based teaching and learning meeting for college and university professors from across the United States. I have been passionate about science education from the beginning of my scientific career, and I welcomed with excitement an opportunity to participate in a national conference on higher education. This year’s meeting was focused on effective classroom strategies to enrich student learning. The experience was very rewarding, as the conference encouraged me to reflect on the need to develop new teaching approaches, or improve existing ones, by modeling case studies with proven positive learning outcomes.

The conference was organized into daily plenary presentations followed by several concurrent sessions. The plenary presentations touched on four major subjects:

  1. Dynamic lecturing
  2. Transparency in teaching and learning
  3. The classroom as practice
  4. The improvement of academic integrity

I was particularly interested in the topic of dynamic lecturing, which explores how to introduce periods of active learning into lectures to effectively increase student retention. The research behind dynamic lecturing demonstrates that lecturing (the passive delivery of information from an expert to an audience) is the best method to facilitate learning in specific situations, such as when teaching novice students, when wanting to activate prior knowledge, when attempting to capture attention fast, or when emphasizing critical concepts. In these situations, lecturing is more effective when it includes moments of active learning. For example the lecturer can:

  • Question students to evoke critical thinking
  • Provide time to reflect on and process information
  • Elaborate through real-life examples and case studies
  • Use available technology

Following the plenary each day, concurrent sessions were organized as either short talks or group discussions, led by experts on specific areas of education. The sessions covered a wide variety of subjects, including engaging minority students in STEM, designing collaborative learning strategies, using advanced technology and multi-media as pedagogical tools, cultivating student resilience, and integrating mindfulness into the classroom.

I was pleased to find that in addition to focusing on traditional education areas such as content delivery and student cognition, leaders of colleges and universities around the country are also becoming aware of the social, economic, cultural, and environmental challenges faced by adult learners of the 21st century. Professors at institutions of higher learning are taking the necessary steps to incorporate concepts and trends of the current era into the curriculum and the overall academic experience, to connect with students and provide a learning environment attuned with the current state of global education. 

The session that had the most profound impact on me as an emerging science educator was entitled “Full STEAM ahead, all aboard,” which described the efforts to incorporate art into Anatomy and Physiology lesson plans for health science students. Using artistic hands-on activities, such as sculpting organs with clay, creating impressionistic-style prints from tissue slides, and building bionic structures using 3D printers, allowed professors to engage visual and kinesthetic learners who often find abstract science concepts challenging. For the time it has been implemented, this innovative approach has enabled students to acquire deep, long-lasting understanding of body systems and their functioning, as shown by positive assessment results. This session inspired me to develop a strong interest in creating novel ways to merge art, technology, and science to design more meaningful biology courses and to support general scientific content.

My experience at the Lilly Conference has provided me with valuable tools to develop my career as a science educator, and I am very thankful to the NICHD Office of Education for sponsoring my registration, to Dr. Yvette Pitman and Ms. Carol Carnahan for helping with the application, and to my postdoctoral mentor Dr. Alan Hinnebusch for supporting my participation in this event.

Editor’s note: Please contact Dr. Yvette Pittman at yvette.pittman@nih.gov to learn about future Lilly conference meetings or other workshop opportunities.