Fulton receives Innovation in Education Award

The 2016 Dean’s Innovation in Education Award was presented to Tracy Fulton, PhD, on Thursday during the School of Pharmacy faculty meeting on the Parnassus campus.

A faculty member of the UCSF School of Medicine, Fulton was recognized for her excellence in bringing new educational approaches to the PharmD program’s first-year biochemistry course, which she teaches. The class focuses on human metabolism, its regulation, and how it goes awry in common metabolic diseases.

Fulton was honored for:

  • Increasing student critical thinking via new teaching tools (a cellular metabolic “map”)
  • Early adoption of team-based learning methods (collaboratively applying biochemistry to analyze dramatized patient cases)
  • Incorporating new integrative, interactive student activities (measuring the effects of different meal contents on their own blood sugar levels)

Fulton, who joined the UCSF faulty in 2000 and holds the UCSF Academy of Medical Educators Chair for Excellence in Foundational Teaching, has been regularly cited as a stellar educator of pharmacy students. She received the student-voted UCSF School of Pharmacy Long Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching eight times and the UCSF School of Pharmacy Dean’s recognition for excellence (honoring instructors with student evaluations of 4.5 or above on a scale of 5) every year for the past decade.

The Dean’s Innovation Award, whose recipient is selected by a committee of faculty peers, specifically recognizes educators for work exemplifying the School’s philosophy of continuous curricular transformation. Honorees receive the award’s engraved glass apple and $1,000.

In a letter supporting Fulton’s nomination, Vice Dean Sharon L. Youmans, PharmD, MPH wrote: “[Her] style of teaching is consistent with our school’s educational philosophy—to produce graduates who are critical thinkers and problem solvers.”

Metabolic maps for learning and assessment

One of Fulton’s signature contributions was her introduction of cellular metabolic maps to the course. These schematic diagrams depict all the sequential biochemical reactions (pathways) that carry out the functions of life inside our cells, as well as their interrelationships. First developed at Stanford, the map purposely lacks molecular structures and pathway regulatory information to encourage student annotation and insights.

Hard copies of the map are given to students at the start of the course and they are allowed to access it electronically during exams—leading to new types of exam questions. “I am much more interested in what the students can do with the information they find on their maps than whether they can regurgitate it from memory,” Fulton explained in her award application.

“The critical piece is learning how to use” the map, she wrote. “My goals … are to increase emphasis on information retrieval, application of knowledge, and problem solving, and to decrease the stress traditionally placed on rote memorization in biochemistry courses.”

“Biochemistry is not (or should not be) about memorizing the Krebs cycle,” Fulton concluded, referring to the sequence of eight chemical reactions by which food molecules are metabolized to generate energy.

Students have clearly agreed. After the map’s first use in 2015, they rated its usefulness for learning higher than any other course component. One student’s evaluation noted, “The map really helped me to better visualize how everything is interconnected.”

Team-based learning

Fulton was also an early adopter of team-based learning in the biochemistry course. In this teaching strategy, students prepare outside of class by studying, for example, the bases for a metabolic disorder, such as the dysregulated buildup of waste from the breakdown of red blood cells (hyperbilirubinemia, which yields the tissue-yellowing called jaundice). After being quizzed on this acquired knowledge, students then observe and participate in dramatized patient interviews, working in small groups to answer questions and reach consensus about clinical correlation—what is causing a condition and thus how to pharmacologically treat itthereby collaboratively applying biochemistry directly to patient care.

Over several years, Fulton has increased team-based learning to nearly a third of class time and has brought in co-instructors with specific clinical specialties, resulting in wider faculty experience with the approach.

This shift to more collaborative problem solving based on preparatory homework—a so-called “flipped classroom” model—was appreciated by students, who have consistently rated it highly for engagement relative to traditional lectures.

“She’s one of the first to truly flip the classroom and be totally successful in doing so,” said Dean B. Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD, in presenting the award to Fulton.

Post-breakfast metabolic measurements

Still another course innovation, introduced by Fulton just this year, was a blood glucose measurement lab modeled after an approach used by several medical schools. In this optional activity, about 50 students determined their blood glucose levels after overnight fasts, and then at specified times after eating three types of provided breakfasts containing differing amounts of fat, sugar, and protein. The students’ measurements were reported anonymously, in real time, and eventually displayed as graphs showing the aggregate blood sugar profiles resulting over time from each type of meal.

Beyond personally experiencing the daily monitoring required of diabetes patients, Fulton explained that students “are able to review key biochemistry around the control of blood glucose in healthy individuals, which helps them to integrate what they are learning with actual physiologic processes occurring in their own bodies.”


School of Pharmacy, Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, Department of Clinical Pharmacy, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.