Penn State Intercom......November
Who: Richard J. Cyr, professor of biology and assistant department
head for Undergraduate Affairs
Began teaching at Penn State: 1989
Research interests: Plant cell biology, plant cytoskeleton
in growth and development, and biochemical characterization of the
Teaching awards: 1996 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence
Family: Married with children
Hobbies: Old car restoration and gardening
HIGHLIGHTING FACULTY ACHIEVEMENT
Teaching and research evolve
for professor of biology
By Celena E. Kusch
Teaching and Learning Consortium
Professor Richard Cyr's
research on plant cell biology has been funded by such leading agencies
as NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But, even while
exploring new avenues for research, applications for teaching are never
far from Cyr's mind.
"I view teaching
and research as an integrated effort," explained Cyr, professor of biology
and assistant department head for Undergraduate Affairs. "I try to bring
research into the classroom whenever I can. It helps the students see
that there are various reasons and applications for learning the materials
presented in the class."
Cyr offered an
example of this productive integration of teaching and research from his
involvement with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Recently, Cyr was
invited to a meeting sponsored by the agency to gather information from
the nation's leading scientists about the use of plants to detect minefields
left over from conflicts. The questions they raised about whether and
how plants might respond to trace chemicals to indicate minefields that
need to be cleared have prompted Cyr to propose a new undergraduate education
and research program.
Cyr, the development of plants as chemical sentinels is promising, but
significant investigation into the basic science of plant response is
required to begin to answer these questions. While these questions are
extremely important, Cyr noted, they do not, at this time, lead to the
kind of project that can produce results for graduate student researchers.
The experiments can, however, form the basis for effective undergraduate
research, Cyr said. He is currently working to develop the Penn State
Biosentinels project in which undergraduates will study the basic ways
plants respond to chemical traces in their environments.
senior director of the Center for Education Technology Services, called
Cyr's approach to teaching through undergraduate research innovative.
been recognized as an exemplary teacher, but he also is an innovator,"
Harwood said. "Nothing in his job description says that he has to be an
innovator, but he has motivated a team of graduate students and faculty
to support real innovation in teaching in the Department of Biology."
Cyr's first innovations
were in leading the redesign of the biology curriculum. In 1996, Cyr was
awarded the George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching partly
in recognition of this work.
biology instruction, his current teaching project with the introductory
biology course, BIO110, also offers a significant contribution to research
on the ways students learn.
approximately 900 undergraduates at University Park each semester. Inspired
by a colleague from another university, Cyr developed several computer-based
teaching modules to support instruction in the course. The modules covered
the same materials as the lectures, but in a different and more interactive
form. Instead of attending lectures, students answered questions online
and completed "firewall" problems to guide their progress through the
After two semesters
of tutorial trials, Cyr found that students who completed the tutorials
out of class and engaged in follow-up question-and-answer sessions with
instructors performed significantly better than students who attended
findings led to greater innovation throughout the BIO110 course. Working
in partnership with Harwood, Cyr began to make major technology enhancements
to improve student learning. Last year, the project received a $450,000
grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study the impact of technology
on student performance and the efficiency of using technology to improve
In the Mellon-funded
project, Cyr works
with a team of six BIO110 instructors, 27 teaching assistants and members
of the Center for Education Technology Services. Biology graduate student
and teaching assistant Nelson Hayes has developed all of the programming
for the online materials.
To date, the
group has developed 41 online modules for use both in the tutorial course
format and in modified versions as supplemental materials for students
who attend the lecture classes. The advanced graphical elements from the
tutorials also have been used to enrich the lectures. Ironically, the
effect of these developments has been that the initial gap between lecture
and tutorial has begun to even out, with both lecture and tutorial students
achieving higher levels of success.
One of the most
interesting findings, Cyr pointed out, is that class size does not seem
to matter in this course. Comparing classes ranging from 75 to 225 students
revealed no significant difference so far in student performance or satisfaction.
"It's not class
size, but how you teach that makes the difference," Cyr said.
modules also provide valuable teaching resources. Instructors may access
individual usage logs and records of performance on tutorial problems
and reviews. Instructors and teaching assistants can then correlate these
records with classroom attendance, time spent online and test results
to help them advise students about how to improve.
"You never go
wrong if you look at teaching from a student's point of view. Richard
Cyr is one of the greatest teachers at Penn State because he always is
asking what we can do out of class to have students spend more time reading,
thinking and talking about biology," Harwood said. "If we had two or three
of Richard in every college at the University, it would be wonderful."
Kusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org