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MSU Gets NSF Grant to Study How Undergrads Learn Science

Cooper, Long, Stoltzfus and Schwarz

Undergraduate science students at Michigan State University are being asked questions about antibiotic resistance and other phenomena that require them to look below the surface, connect concepts across different disciplines and develop explanations about how and why a phenomenon occurred.

Jon Stoltzfus, director of the Biological Sciences Program at MSU, will lead a three-year $598,925 National Science Foundation collaborative research initiative to investigate how students develop these explanations.

Stoltzfus and researchers from the MSU Colleges of Natural Science and Education will examine how core ideas and mechanistic explanations are used within and across three introductory science courses: chemistry, cell and molecular biology, and organismal biology.

“As faculty members, we see the connection between chemistry and molecular biology,” said Stoltzfus, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, who teaches cell and molecular biology. “Our hope is to make that apparent to students.

“We want to see if students are transferring ideas, what exactly they are transferring and how they are using what they transfer, and how we can facilitate that process,” he added.

During the project, titled Studying Students’ Mechanistic Explanations across Undergraduate Chemistry and Biology Courses, co-principal investigator Christina Schwarz, associate professor, science education, will analyze explanations generated by students to gain insights into how students are developing high-quality explanations using mechanisms and models. Some students will be interviewed to determine what ideas they have gathered from progressive courses, such as Chemistry 1 and 2, and how well those ideas are linked together in an explanation, Stoltzfus said.

An example of a student's diagram and written explanation of how phenotypic variability can arise in a bacterial populaton, resulting in both resistant and nonresistant behavior.

Example of a student’s diagram and explanation of how phenotypic variability can arise in a bacterial population, resulting in both resistant and nonresistant strains. Image courtesy of Jon Stoltzfus.

Co-principal investigators Tammy Long, assistant professor of plant biology, and Melanie Cooper, professor of chemistry and a Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education, who teach organismal biology and chemistry, respectively, will also support the project as students explain, reason and understand how phenomena across disciplines are related. In each course, students will use a combination of diagrams and writing to explain how and why a series of three related phenomena occur.

“We are trying to see if students need to use ideas from chemistry to really understand ideas in biology, and we think they do,” Stoltzfus said. “We believe in the prerequisite structure; we are ultimately looking to address barriers that block the transfer and use of ideas.”

Researchers aim to gather information that will lead to improved teaching that maximizes how students apply ideas between introductory courses, such as Biology 1 and 2, and supports the development of reasoning skills needed after students graduate and begin their careers.

Other insights gathered from the research will be used to develop learning objectives, indicating what needs to be mastered in each introductory course to produce sophisticated explanations in subsequent courses. Vocabulary used in each course also will be a factor when determining how ideas are transferred across courses.

“This framework will serve as a guide for future science, technology, education and mathematics courses and curriculum remodeling efforts geared toward producing well-prepared citizens and scientists,” Stoltzfus said.

  • via the College of Natural Science website

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