Promoting Scientific Reasoning about Matter & Energy

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Title of Abstract: Promoting Scientific Reasoning about Matter & Energy

Name of Author: April Maskiewicz
Author Company or Institution: Point Loma Nazarene University
Author Title: Assistant Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Ecology and Environmental Biology, General Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Adding to the literature on how people learn, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Introductory Biology Matter and Energy student-centered instruction Inquiry Scientific reasoning

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Over the past few years my research has focused on identifying ways to promote undergraduate student thinking and reasoning about matter and energy transformations and pathways, one of the five core biological concepts identified in Vision and Change (AAAS, 2011). Conservation of matter and energy are central principles that biologists apply when reasoning about dynamic systems in which matter and energy are exchanged across defined boundaries. Biological explanations of living systems also require the additional cognitive challenge of making connections between multiple levels of biological complexity (atomic/molecular/cellular, organismal, and ecosystem). Research shows, however, that when college students try to make sense of or explain biological systems they tend to focus on only one level of complexity at a time and often don’t conserve matter and energy (Maskiewicz, 2006; Wilson et al., 2006; Mohan et al., 2009; Hartley et al., 2011). My goal has been to identify curricular activities that help undergraduate introductory students develop scientific ways of reasoning about matter and energy in biological systems (NRC, 2003; AAAS, 2011).

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: As a teacher and researcher, I collect data in my introductory biology courses to study the effectiveness of various inquiry-based activities to meet the following two instructional objectives: Students will be able to (a) develop explanations about ecological phenomena that are constrained by the principles of conservation of matter and energy, and (b) begin to reason across biological levels of organization. I began this research by compiling a ‘toolbox’ of previously developed data-rich problems and highly collaborative activities that targeted specific confusions with matter and energy identified in the literature or from my prior research. Each of the tasks encouraged students to work together to solve problems, explore relationships, or analyze data at multiple levels of organization (see Maskiewicz, Griscom & Welch, 2012 and Maskiewicz, 2006 for a sampling of activities). Over several semesters I implemented and evaluated the effectiveness of various revisions and combinations of these activities for meeting my learning objectives. I’ve collected data from over 200 students in two different introductory biology courses (GE biology and the first year biology sequence) as well as collaborated with biology education researchers at other universities who agreed to implement many of the same activities (Maskiewicz, Griscom & Welch, 2012).

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: The iterative process of implementation, analysis (both quantitative and qualitative), and revision revealed that students can learn to reason scientifically about matter and energy transformations and pathways in an introductory course (Maskiewicz, Vanderburg & Powell, 2012; Maskiewicz, Griscom, & Welch, 2012). The quantitative data show an average normalized gain (g) of 24%. Quantitative analysis was augmented by the use of the Ecology Diagnostic Question clusters (DQCs) ( which focus on conservation of matter and energy, and scales of organization. Using application questions, as opposed to questions on the details of biological processes, the results from the ecology DQCs illuminate reasoning patterns that are consistent for a student or even for an entire class. Qualitative data collection included pre- and post-interviews, student written work, and video recordings of both whole class and small group discussions. The qualitative and quantitative data together suggest that as a result of engaging in several specific inquiry tasks, the introductory students can learn to apply the principles of conservation of matter and energy when explaining ecological phenomena. Students begin to reason across multiple scales after only a few specific targeted activities; however, their progress is not linear or stable, but episodic. We also found that an instructor's teaching method had a highly significant effect on students’ reasoning about matter and energy.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The student centered activities that were found to promote principled reasoning about conservation of matter and energy are now implemented in all of the introductory ecology courses at PLNU, and an inquiry approach to instruction has ‘spilled-over’ into companion introductory biology courses. Department wide instructional changes are occurring for two reasons: (1) the university supports and encourages student-centered instructional practices, and (2) the 11 full-time biology faculty participate in weekly ‘brown bag’ faculty development lunches for the past few years. Most of our biology faculty have modified their lecture classes to include student-centered activities as a result of these lunch sharing sessions. Our lunch discussions have also led to a major revision to our introductory biology course sequence in an effort to cover fewer concepts, but cover them in greater depth (we created a 4 course introductory sequence: cell & molecular biology, ecology & evolution, genetics, organismal biology). As a group, the biology faculty read and discussed Handelsman et al's 'Scientific Teaching' book (2006) with the goal of reflecting on and being intentional about our instructional approaches in both our lower and upper division courses. Finally, all of our non-science major introductory biology courses have been transformed to focus less on coverage and more on the five core themes of biology as identified by Vision and Change (AAAS, 2011).

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Since my goal has been to identify instructional activities that help undergraduate introductory students develop scientific ways of thinking about matter and energy in biological systems, I needed an effective way to measure students’ reasoning. One of the most effective approaches is to conduct interviews, however interviews are labor and time intensive, and the population size of a qualitative study utilizing interviews tends to be small. While concept inventories can be used with large numbers of students to reveal patterns in students’ reasoning, they are not as effective as interviews in uncovering student thinking. Furthermore, limited funding in biology education research has had an impact on our ability to conduct multiple interviews or refine concept inventories that set out to reveal reasoning patterns. I have been working with undergraduate students to teach them how to conduct and begin to analyze interviews, but this process is only partially effective as most undergraduate students remain with a project for only one or two semesters and work only a few hours per week. I continue to search for funding sources that will support small in-depth approaches to identifying the instructional interventions that are most effective for promoting student thinking and reasoning.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Dissemination has included one publication in CBE-Life Sciences Education (Maskiewicz, Griscom, & Welch, 2012), multiple presentations at the Ecological Society of America conferences (ESA 2012, 2010, 2009), and one presentation at the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER, 2012). Currently I am working on validating the ecology DQCs using interviews from students in my courses. I hope to publish these findings in a science education journal.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all of the students in my introductory biology courses over the past few years for allowing me to conduct surveys, analyze their inventory responses, video record class sessions, and for volunteering to be interviewed. I would like to thank several undergraduate students for helping me conduct this research (Naomi Delgado, Maria Holman, Lindsay Powell, and Kelsey Alexander). Finally, I would like to thank the administration at Point Loma Nazarene University for supporting the transformation of biology instruction and all that this entails.