Understanding Evolution for Undergraduates

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Title of Abstract: Understanding Evolution for Undergraduates

Name of Author: Judy Scotchmoor
Author Company or Institution: University of California, Berkeley
Author Title: Emerita
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Evolutionary Biology, General Biology, Integrative Biology
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Evolutionary biology, active learning, lessons, evolution across the curriculum, teaching resources

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Understanding Evolution website (www.understandingevolution.org, UE) provides freely accessible, innovative teaching tools for evolutionary biology. Initially targeting K-12 teachers, the site was expanded to include materials for undergraduate instructors in 2010. The goals of this expansion align with the Vision for Implementing Change: (1) Integrating Core Concepts and Competencies throughout the Curriculum. UE’s undergraduate materials aim to facilitate instructors’ ability to integrate evolution throughout the biology curriculum, particularly in introductory classes. Evolution is one of the five Core Concepts outlined in Vision and Change and is a unifying principle in biology. In addition, many of the newly developed materials help students relate abstract concepts to real-world examples by encouraging instructors to address the many applications of evolutionary theory, both in solving real world problems and in scientific research. (2) Focus on Student-Centered Learning and Engaging the Biology Community in the Implementation of Change. Another goal of our new materials is to encourage college biology instructors to use pedagogical techniques supported by education research, with a focus on active, student-centered learning and alternatives to strict lecture, as recommended in Vision and Change.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Following recommendations from the National Research Council (2003) and our advisory board of college faculty, this expansion focused on the development of tools for teaching evolution that encourage active learning, that involve students with the primary literature and authentic data, and that help instructors incorporate evolution throughout the Introductory Biology curriculum. These materials include: active learning slides that use minute papers, clicker questions, and problem-based discussions to engage students; Evolution Connection slide sets that weave evolutionary concepts into topics in a typical Intro Biology syllabus; a journal club toolkit that helps students learn about authentic scientific practices by engaging them with the primary literature; an interactive syllabus for locating evolution-related teaching materials for most topics in Intro Biology; a searchable database of lessons that actively engage students with evolutionary concepts; and a wide variety of readers and resources that address the applications of evolutionary theory in solving real world problems and in scientific research. This large collection of materials grows constantly with the addition of community-contributed, peer-reviewed activities and basic informational pieces and teaching resources developed by UE staff.

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 UE website has taken a multi-pronged approach to ensure that our goals are being met. First, new undergraduate materials developed for UE were reviewed and edited by our Teacher Advisory Board, made up of master teachers from a variety of college-level institutions (from rural community colleges to research-one institutions). Second, the research and evaluation firm Rockman et al performed a mixed-method evaluation of the new site components focused on use by instructors of college-level introductory biology. Their evaluation consisted of (a) a study of site use by six introductory biology teachers using a think-aloud protocol as participants performed tasks using the website, (b) a survey of site users and recruited participants (n = 544 undergraduate instructors) to determine their patterns of site use and satisfaction with different aspects of the site, and (c) two virtual focus groups, consisting of six faculty each, who were asked to use different site materials in their classrooms and discuss their experiences. The final component of our evaluation effort involved monitoring site-use statistics using Google Analytics. In the future, we hope to obtain funding for controlled classroom trials of UE materials, in which student impact can be directly measured.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The website garners in excess of 1.3 million page accesses per month (up from around 850,000 before the site was expanded for the undergraduate level), serves many institution types (from rural community colleges to doctoral-granting, research-oriented universities), and has a diverse international audience (many site resources are available in Turkish and Spanish). Rockman et al’s evaluation of the site found that all groups (undergraduate instructors, K-12 teachers, and students) were overwhelmingly positive about UE as a general resource and praised the site's design, organization, and navigation. In addition, all groups seemed to benefit from using UE, with undergraduate instructors being influenced the most. Data showed that undergraduate instructors had the highest frequency of visits to the UE site, perception of needs being met by the site, likelihood of returning to the site, level of overall praise for the site, and rate of directing their students to the site. The evidence strongly suggests that UE has met its objectives for reaching the undergraduate community (instructors and students), while maintaining interest from the K-12 community.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: One of our aims was to support community interactions regarding teaching evolutionary biology by enabling rating and threaded discussion of UE resources. Many instructors modify materials to suit their needs and have developed troves of relevant knowledge that could form the basis of helpful community interactions. We envisioned the UE website as a place where this knowledge could be shared by vested practitioners. Unfortunately, our first attempt at developing this community failed. Our original platform for commenting was too difficult to use and was easily overwhelmed by spam. We have since revamped the system to use social media commenting (via Facebook) and will be launching a new effort to solicit comments in September. We look forward to finding out if this change will be effective.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: UE’s dissemination via the web has been highly effective. The site is consistently among the top three results for the search term ‘evolution’ and receives >1.3 million page accesses per month. In addition, UE has been disseminated in a wide variety of targeted venues. Recognized with Science Magazine’s SPORE award, UE has been presented at workshops at the National Association of Biology Teachers, state science teachers’ conferences, the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences’ Thinking Evolutionarily convocation, many scientific meetings, BioQUEST, NESCent, UC Berkeley, and more. In addition, UE staff have published articles on the website in peer-reviewed journals. Collaborations with professional societies, faculty, and other resource providers have allowed the site to grow and reach a broader audience every year. Although the presence of resources alone does not guarantee the kind of transformation called for in Vision and Change, access to high quality, community-vetted materials supports the implementation of change on a national level.

Acknowledgements: Project work team: Roy Caldwell, David Lindberg, Judy Scotchmoor, Anna Thanukos, Josh Frankel, David Smith Project Advisory Board: Paul Beardsley, Rodger Bybee , Steven Case, Judy Diamond, Sam Donovan, Kristin Jenkins, Joe Levine, Dennis Liu, Patricia Morse, Paul Narguizian, Richard O'Grady, Eugenie Scott, Lisa White, Brian Wiegmann Undergraduate teacher advisors: Robin Bingham, Jean DeSaix, Nan Ho, Jennifer Katcher, Kristi Curry Rogers, Jim Smith, Kirsten Swinstrom, Lisa Urry, Dan Ward, Jason Wiles, Cal Young External undergraduate teacher advisors: Felicitas Avendano, Kari Benson, Jenny Boughman, Marya Czech, Ryan Gregory, Laurel Hester, Andre Lachance, Troy Ladine, Mary Mulcahy, Andrew Petto, Polly Schultz, Kathy Schwab, Elena Speth, Robert Swanson, James Thompson, Martin Tracey, Leo Welch