Tom Gower named director of new biology-focused residential learning community

Tom Gower, professor in the CALS Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, has been selected as the first faculty director for the BioHouse residential learning community, which is scheduled to open in fall 2014. BioHouse, the 10th UW-Madison residential learning community, will serve 65–130 students in the biological sciences. It will focus on grand challenges in biology by exploring five “foundation stones” of the discipline: evolution, structure and function, information dynamics, energy and matter dynamics, and systems. Biohouse is a partnership between the Institute for Biology Education and University Housing and is funded by the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates.

Biohouse residents will learn how biology is central in addressing global challenges around human health, biosphere health, food and fiber security and energy security. Residents will work, play, study and explore opportunities in biology together. Biology-themed social activities will help build camaraderie, and a one-credit seminar course will help students appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of cutting-edge bioscience research, expose them to career opportunities, and help them chart an exciting learning pathway at UW–Madison.

About a quarter of incoming students at UW–Madison —more than 1500 each year—are interested in studying biology, and it’s not an easy path, notes Janet Branchaw, Interim Director of the Institute for Biology Education.

“That first year can be especially hard,” she says. “Students in the biological sciences are faced with difficult foundational courses like math and chemistry, and they may not get to take a biology course until their second semester or even their second year. Many students just give up on science, but we’re trying to change that.”

BioHouse is designed to help students get a more integrated picture of their studies, understand how math and chemistry are used in biology and see how they can make a difference in the world as biologists. “We want to help students keep their enthusiasm for science,” says Branchaw, adding that, “You can’t help being enthusiastic about science when you’re around Tom Gower. He really loves teaching biology and connecting with students, and I know he’s going to make a difference in these students’ lives.”

The addition of BioHouse will create a trio of UW–Madison learning communities available to students interested in science. GreenHouse focuses on environmental sustainability, WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) fosters leadership in young women scientists and engineers, and BioHouse will serve students across all of the biological sciences. Each of the communities has a unique theme and approach, but they have common ground for collaboration.

Gower is excited by the potential for synergy. “I’m interested in the possibility of incorporating a public service element into the program, for example,” he says. “GreenHouse and WISE already do that, and I’m looking forward to learning from their experiences.” Members of the WISE and GreenHouse leadership teams will serve on the planning and steering committees for BioHouse.