A Research-Based Inquiry Curriculum for the Life Sciences

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Title of Abstract: A Research-Based Inquiry Curriculum for the Life Sciences

Name of Author: Deborah Donovan
Author Company or Institution: Western Washington University
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Courses for preservice elementary teachers, General Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: constructivist, energy, matter, preservice elementary teachers

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): John Rousseau, Whatcom Community College Irene Salter, California State University, Chico Leslie Atkins, California State University, Chico

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Research has shown that teachers model their own teaching after the classroom experiences they had as learners. Thus, prospective teachers should be taught science in a manner that replicates the inquiry strategies, small group work, and active learning that we hope they will employ in their own classrooms. There is a lack of published undergraduate science curricula that meets these needs so we embarked on a multi-year, collaborative process to develop a life science curriculum using a published physics curriculum as a model. A major goal of the curriculum was to encourage students to develop a deep, conceptual understanding of introductory biology topics. Another goal was to create an environment where students grapple with experimental evidence and ideas through rich conversations in order to construct the targeted scientific concepts themselves. Investigations take place in small, collaborative learning groups, which then feed into whole-class discussions where students share, critique, and refine their ideas. This approach reflects the inquiry processes used by scientists and allows students to better understand the nature of science. The full curriculum, Life Science and Everyday Thinking (LSET), can be taught in one 15-week semester, with 6 lab hours per week. There are two options for excluding certain chapters to fit a 10-week quarter (an ecology option and a cell option).

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: This work was conducted through a multi-year collaborative process involving 17 faculty from four-year universities, community colleges, and middle- and high-schools. The process began in September 2004 with faculty who were designing a year-long sequence of three science courses (in physical science, life science, and earth science) targeted to elementary education students completing their credentials at Western Washington University, but open to all undergraduates. The initial life science curriculum was intended for a 10 week course and was subsequently revised, beginning in February 2010, to a 16 week curriculum for institutions on the semester system. Student materials are completed and have been piloted on over 1200 students. We are currently finishing the instructor materials, negotiating with a publisher, and planning to create professional development materials to assist new instructors in facilitating the curriculum.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: In order to measure student outcomes related to conceptual understanding and views about the nature of science, we administered online pretests and posttests in the semester-long LSET and quarter-long LSET version of the course. These were compared against a control group who took Biology 101, a semester-long course developed and taught by one of the LSET authors. Like LSET, Biology 101 took an inquiry-based, constructivist approach to the instruction of elementary education majors. However, there were notable differences such as: LSET selectively targeted fewer concepts, but in greater depth; LSET spent more time in small, collaborative learning groups than the control course (90% of class time versus 60%); and LSET placed greater emphasis on discussion. The instruments included a content assessment containing items from the Horizon Research Inc. life science assessment and the California Praxis Exam and the Views about Science Survey (VASS) Biology Form B12. The VASS contains 30 items that measure student views about knowing and learning science and classifies students into four distinct profiles: expert, high transitional, low transitional, and folk. We also used an open-ended question that assessed the students' ability to trace the flow of carbon through an ecosystem (the 'Grandma Johnson' question). This question was administered in a range of courses including the semester-long LSET, quarter-long LSET, and traditional Biology and Environmental Science lecture/lab courses.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: With all three curricula, there was a trend towards increased content knowledge, however none of these changes were statistically significant. The lack of statistically significant improvement may be due, in part, to a ceiling effect as the result of our selection of a multiple choice assessment that did not sufficiently challenge the students. Analysis of the more challenging, open-ended assessment item (accepted for publication elsewhere) has documented significant content knowledge gains compared to more traditionally taught biology courses. Using the ‘Grandma Johnson’ question, 70% of students in semester-LSET could correctly trace a carbon atom through an ecosystem, while only 21% of students in a traditional lecture-based biology class could do so. Students who experienced the full LSET curriculum developed more sophisticated views about science. While the Biology 101 and quarter-LSET students showed movement toward an expert view, the shift in the profile distributions from pretest to posttest were not statistically significant nor was a shift towards more expert views observed a year later. In contrast, the semester-LSET group showed a statistically significant shift towards a more expert way of thinking about science that grew in the year following the course. This raises the tantalizing possibility that the semester-LSET curriculum may construct a strong foundation for understanding the nature of science upon which other classes may build.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: One of the most significant challenges we face is that instructors who are not well versed in the theory and pedagogy behind the course have difficulty facilitating the curriculum. They tend to fall back on a 'more is better' mentality and insert lectures into the curriculum or they do not effectively facilitate certain aspects of the curriculum (i.e. whiteboard discussions). We are planning to create professional development materials to address this challenge.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The curriculum has been widely disseminated through talks and workshops at science meetings (e.g. ESA) and education meetings (e.g. NARST, NABT). A paper on using a physics model for a biology curriculum has just been published in CBE-Life Sciences Education. We are currently negotiating with It's About Time to publish the materials.

Acknowledgements: We are grateful to the many students who have been in our classes and have given us helpful feedback on this curriculum, and to our colleagues who were part of the development team. This work was funded through NSF #0315060 and NSF #0942391.