Penn State Intercom......November 1, 2001



* 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 cytoskeleton

* Teaching awards: 1996 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching

* Family: Married with children

* Hobbies: Old car restoration and gardening


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.

According to 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.

John Harwood, senior director of the Center for Education Technology Services, called Cyr's approach to teaching through undergraduate research innovative.

"Richard has 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.

Beyond improving biology instruction, his current teaching project with the introductory biology course, BIO110, also offers a significant contribution to research on the ways students learn.

BIO110 reaches 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 materials.

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 lecture.

Cyr's initial 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 learning outcomes.

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.

The computer-based 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."

Celena E. Kusch can be reached at .