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Innovative Undergraduate Education Programs

Biological Sciences

Bacteriophage program

  • Dr. Graham Hatfull from Biological Sciences was awarded an HHMI Professorship by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2002 to support innovation in the education of college students.
  • As a result, Dr. Hatfull was instrumental in developing a discovery-based biology course for introductory students at University of Pittsburgh in which students discover, characterize and sequence the genome of phages.
  • The course, called Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) was finalized in 2008 and has shown great success in engaging students in their own learning, getting them excited about science and, as a consequence, has led to improvements in student retention within STEM and has increased the number of students interested in participating in original research.
  • The course has been since adopted/adapted by over 70 other universities across the country.
  • Read about the success of this course in an article in mBio.
  • More information about the success of the SEA-PHAGES course:
  • There is now a national database of nearly 5000 phages to which new ones are periodically added.

Improving Biology Education at Pitt through the Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis (QUBES) Program

  • Dr. Sam Donovan from Biological Sciences is one of the principal investigators for this program
  • Him and his colleagues at University of Wisconsin-Madison and at the College of William and Mary have recently been awarded a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish this program
  • The primary goals of the QUBES program are to:
    • Coordinate the efforts and resources of disparate communities invested in promoting quantitative biology education;
    • Support faculty understanding and implementation of specific quantitative biology concepts and teaching approaches;
    • Increase the visibility, utility, and adoption of existing quantitative biology materials and the capacity for peer educator interaction;
    • Quantify and track faculty contribution to quantitative biology education scholarship; and,
    • Study and Disseminate the features of QUBES that increase implementation success.
  • For more information about this exciting program, visit the QUBES hub.
  • Read about the QUBES program in Pitt Chronicle

Inquiry-Based Introductory Biology labs

Mentor/Mentee fellowship program

  • The department of Biological Sciences has developed an 11 week summer program which encourages students who have not done research to get involved. The program pairs up Junior and Senior undergraduates with Freshmen and Sophomores to work on joint projects and develop skills together.
  • More information available here.


Physics and Astronomy
Physics Exploration Center (PEC)
  • Dr. Chandralekha Singh, the dB-SERC Founding Director, has founded the Physics Exploration Center in which undergraduate students who are taking introductory physics can work together on exploration experiments designed to help them develop a more thorough understanding of physical phenomena.
  • Doing PEC experiments is often required in introductory courses for course credit (although, it's usually as extra credit).
  • The Center is open from 9:00 am am to 4:30 pm and is staffed by physics graduate students who can provide guidance and support to undergraduates. In addition, the graduate student also provide homework help for students who are struggling in physics courses. 
  • More information available here.
  • Articles written by Dr. Singh about the exploration center:

Using clickers (Personal Response Systems) to improve student engagement and learning in introductory courses

  • The department of physics and astronomy at Pitt has purchased clickers which are used in the majority of introductory physics courses.
  • Students do not have to purchase the clickers and just use one that is assigned to them each class.
  • The clickers are used to ask students mostly conceptual and sometimes quantitative questions during class so that they practice the material they are learning as they are learning it and receive immediate feedback. In addition, the instructor receives feedback of student learning and proceeds accordingly.
  • In addition, clickers are used to promote student discussions during class (students are often asked to discuss the clicker questions with one or several peers).



Peer Led Team Learning (PLTL) / UTA program



Introductory statistics honors course

  • Dr. Nancy Pfenning teaches has been teaching Honors Applied Statistical Methods for 8 years which is designed to develop students' critical thinking skills and awareness of how statistical methods are applied in a variety of disciplines.
  • Students investigate applications of statistics in their own areas of personal interest and give 15 minute talks on journal articles which reference statistical methods learned in class.
  • In this seminar style course, students must embrace that they are not only responsible for their own learning, but also responsible for the learning of the rest of the group.

​Honors Statistics in Journalism

  • Dr. Nancy Pfenning co-teaches this course with Cindy Skrzycki from the English department.
  • The course focuses on helping students understand the weaknesses and inaccuracies that can occur when journalists present statistical results, and statistics is used and misused in science-based news.
  • In the first part of the course, students critique popular news articles in major publications to develop an understanding of the shortcomings of shallow reporting. In the second part, students write a news article based on recently published research.
  • For more information, see Just the Facts?, an article about this course published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Also, more information about the course is available on the course website.


Scaffolded Writing and Reviewing in the Discipline (SWoRD)
  • Dr. Chris Schunn, a faculty member in the Department of Psychology and researcher at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) has helped develop SWoRD, a web-based reciprocal peer review system which facilitates providing quality feedback for students in large classes in which writing is critical, but difficult to include (because of resource constraints, time etc.) The SWoRD system has been used by over 27,000 users around the world from ten countries.
  • This peer-review system is free to use by any instructor at Pitt, and many instructors who teach writing-intensive classes have been using it.
  • You can see Dr. Schunn discussing the SWoRD system during the Pitt Senate Plenary on April 3, 2014 which can be accessed here (follow link provided on the webpage, right before the first speaker, Chandralekha Singh. You can use your pitt username and password to gain access to the video).
  • SWoRD webpage
  • Recently SWoRD has been bought by Panther Learning and is now known as Peerceptiv. See the Peerceptiv homepage for more information.