Animal Diversity Web -- A Resource for Learning and Teaching

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Title of Abstract: Animal Diversity Web -- A Resource for Learning and Teaching

Name of Author: Phil Myers
Author Company or Institution: University of Michigan
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Ecology and Environmental Biology, Evolutionary Biology, General Biology, Integrative Biology, Marine Biology, Organismal Biology, Physiology & Anatomy
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: inquiry, comparative biology, organismal biology, natural history, active learning

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Tanya Dewey, University of Michigan George Hammond, University of MIchigan Roger Espinosa, University of Michigan Tricia Jones, University of Michigan

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Our understanding of the patterns and processes that underlie fields including ecology, evolutionary biology, conservation biology and related disciplines is based largely on knowledge accumulated by studying species of organisms. These data are complex, reported in different ways by different investigators, and usually not stored in central repositories using consistent metadata. Thus, while data from these fields potentially can be used to address Vision and Change Core Concepts 1 (Evolution), 2 (Structure and Function, and 5 (Systems), and Core Competencies 1 (Ability to Apply the Process of Science), 2 (Ability to use Quantitative Reasoning), 4 (Ability to Tap into the Interdisciplinary Nature of Science), 5 (Ability to Communicate and Collaborate with Other Disciplines), and possibly 3 (Ability to Use Modeling and Simulation), biologists in these disciplines have had little success at incorporating inquiry activities or other forms of active learning based on them in their classrooms. This in sharp contrast to the wealth of resources for inquiry learning in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (e.g. BioQuest, BioSciEdNet, GenBank, etc.). To answer this need, beginning in 1995, we created an on-line database of species biology that students could search to discover for themselves these patterns and processes and test hypotheses based on them. The Animal Diversity Web (ADW,, is built with student contributions of information about animal species that are reviewed for accuracy and incorporated into a structured database that allows flexible re-use. The ADW is one of the most widely used natural history databases online globally, with nearly 4000 detailed taxon descriptions and a wide user base, delivering over 1 million page views to 300,000+ site visitors monthly. Over 70% of visitors report using the ADW for educational purposes. The ADW is currently the only natural history online that allows flexible querying of data.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Writing ADW species accounts has become an important part of many organismal biology courses. Accounts are submitted through a structured online template that supports literature review and synthesis and provides experience writing in the discipline. Published accounts on ADW serve as examples of student work for job and graduate applications and are used by faculty to document teaching impact. The ADW product that has the greatest potential to provide transformative undergraduate educational experiences is its rich and structured database . We built and refined a complex querying tool that enables students to discover patterns and test hypotheses on their own, and we are working with instructors to create and incorporate inquiry-based activities based on it in their classes ( This flexible and powerful tool has now been tested and successfully incorporated in a wide range of biology courses. A library of activities, organized by the nature of the course for which it was written, is shared on the site and activities are added regularly as they are developed and tested by faculty.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Evaluation focuses on impact on students, impact on faculty, and success at incorporating new sources of data. We combine interviews, frequent interactions, and formal questionnaires to address impact on faculty. The focus is on their assessment of the impact of our materials on their students, the degree to which activities are aligned with their curricula, and the effectiveness of our training sessions with the faculty themselves. Students respond to questions before and after the activities that test their inquiry and reasoning skills, the ease of use of our database and querying tools, and their attitude about science. Measures of success regarding the incorporation of new data are mainly quantitative: how many sources do we integrate, how extensively are they used by participants, etc. All assessment is designed and lead by an external evaluator.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We are currently incorporating activities based on the ADW query engine into classrooms of approximately 35 faculty at 30 institutions nationwide, including evaluation of impacts on student and faculty perceptions. Our goal is to provide engaging, inquiry-based educational experiences that align with curricula in organismal biology courses. Participating institutions include large, research-intensive universities, smaller 4-year colleges that emphasize teaching, and 2-year colleges. Even wider dissemination of this tool and research outcomes is anticipated in summer 2013 as a result of presentations at key meetings of professional societies. ADW taxon account writing has been used as a formal part of teaching ‘organismal’ courses at over 65 institutions, including some that have participated for over 10 years. These accounts represent the work of over 1500 student authors since 2010.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The challenges of bringing together diverse data streams are daunting, and to address thm, we were recently awarded a NSF RCN-UBE Incubator grant (1247821) to bring undergraduate biology education projects together with large biological database projects. Our goal is to develop a set of recommendations to make these kinds of authentic data available in formats accessible to students. A meeting of participating projects will take place this summer. If the goal of increasing the accessibility of data can be accomplished, the possibilities of rich research experiences for students that cut across a variety of disciplines becomes very real. Despite our impact at other institutions and in the broader education community, we have encountered obstacles to instituting change in our own department at the University of Michigan. Few faculty colleagues have expressed interest in modifying their own teaching approach. However, we have received strong encouragement from our department chair and from the college to further develop the ADW project, as it is recognized as an important education and outreach resource.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The Animal Diversity Web maintains strong and active collaborative relationships with many other biology education resource projects, such as Encyclopedia of Life, VertNet, and AmphibiaWeb. We regularly share ideas about new developments and resources with a broad community of other organizations involved in promoting inquiry-driven learning in undergraduate courses and data useful in inquiry. The ADW actively participates in efforts to support innovative, inquiry-driven approaches to undergraduate biology education. We recently participated in the inaugural Life Discovery-Doing Science conference organized by the ESA ( ADW has helped to organize and present at workshops to promote inquiry-driven learning approaches at 2012 and 2013 Evolution Meetings. Finally, the ADW has taken the lead in organizing a workshop that will bring together national leaders in promoting innovation in biology education and databases that organize and share data that is useful in education. The goal of this workshop, recently funded by NSF as an RCN-UBE Incubator project, is to develop a strategic plan for enhancing the accessibility and use of real biological data in undergraduate education.

Acknowledgements: We gratefully acknowledge support from the National Science Foundation (DRL 0089283, DRL 0628151, DUE 0633095, DRL 0918590, DUE 1122742, DBI 1247821). We also thank Prof. Nancy Songer and her group in the Univ. Michigan School of Education for 15 years of productive collaboration and patient instruction in the field of education.