Biology

Supporting High School Students and Teachers with a Digital, Localizable, Climate Education Experience

This partnership of BSCS Science Learning, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advances curriculum materials development for high quality units that are intentionally designed for adaptation by teachers for their local context. The project will create a base unit on carbon cycling as a foundation for understanding how and why the Earth's climate is changing, and it will study the process of localizing the unit for teachers to implement across varied contexts to incorporate local phenomena, problems, and solutions.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2100808
Funding Period: 
Thu, 07/01/2021 to Mon, 06/30/2025
Full Description: 

Teachers regularly adapt curriculum materials to localize for their school or community context, yet curriculum materials are not always created to support this localization. Developing materials that are intentionally designed for localization has potential to support rich science learning across different contexts, especially for a topic like climate change where global change can have varied local effects. This partnership of BSCS Science Learning, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advances curriculum materials development for high quality units that are intentionally designed for adaptation by teachers for their local context. It will develop and test a design process bringing together national designers and teachers across the country. Teachers will be supported through professional learning to adapt from the base unit to create a local learning experience for their students. The project will create a base unit on carbon cycling as a foundation for understanding how and why the Earth's climate is changing, and it will study the process of localizing the unit for teachers to implement across varied contexts to incorporate local phenomena, problems, and solutions. The unit will be fully digital with rich visual experiences, simulations, and computer models that incorporate real-time data and the addition of localized data sets. These data-based learning experiences will support students in reasoning with data to ask and answer questions about phenomena. Research will study the unit development and localization process, the supports appropriate for teachers and students, and the impact on classroom practice.

The project will adopt an iterative design process to create a Storyline base unit, aligned to Next Generation Science Standards, for localization, piloting, and an implementation study with 40 teachers. To support teacher learning, the project adopts the STeLLA teacher professional learning model. To support student learning, the project addresses climate change content knowledge with a focus on socioscientific issues and students’ sense of agency with environmental science. The project will research how the educative features in the unit and the professional development impact teachers’ practice, including their content knowledge, comfort for teaching a socioscientific issue, and their ability to productively localize materials from a base unit. The study uses a cohort-control quasi-experimental design to examine the impact of the unit and professional learning experience on dimensions of students' sense of agency with environmental science. The study will also include exploratory analyses to examine whether all students benefit from the unit. It uses a pre-post design to examine impacts on teacher knowledge and practice.

Fostering Computational Thinking through Neural Engineering Activities in High School Biology Classes

This project will develop and study a curriculum and app that support computational thinking (CT) in a high school biology unit. The project will engage students in rich data practices by gathering, manipulating, analyzing, simulating, and visualizing data of bioelectrical signals from neural sensors, and in so doing give the students opportunities to apply CT principles.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2101615
Funding Period: 
Wed, 09/01/2021 to Sun, 08/31/2025
Full Description: 

Computational thinking (CT) is a set of processes to identify and solve problems using algorithms or steps, and can be applied not only in computer science but in other disciplines. This project will develop and study a curriculum and app that support CT in a high school biology unit. Through a month-long neural engineering unit, approximately 500 students in 18 classes will measure their own muscle and brain activity with a low-cost, portable, wearable technology. Students will then analyze the data and design a brain-computer interface to turn neural signals into real-world output (e.g., a mechanical claw controlled by brain activity). The curriculum will be supported by: (1) a web-based instructional application that will guide students through the neural engineering design process; (2) neuroscience and engineering PhD students and postdocs acting as STEM mentors; and (3) a professional development program for teachers and mentors. The goal is to increase the students’ knowledge and interest regarding neurobiology, engineering, and computational thinking. This can contribute to their long-term capacity to pursue STEM careers. By integrating CT education into high school science, this expands the accessibility of the engineering and computing experiences beyond other efforts that focus primarily on programming and computer science courses.

The project will engage students in rich data practices by gathering, manipulating, analyzing, simulating, and visualizing data of bioelectrical signals from neural sensors, and in so doing give the students opportunities to apply computational thinking principles. The project will produce curriculum materials for the neural sensors and associated data practices. It will develop an app to help students design and construct a brain-computer interface, including computational elements like coding blocks, sensor and data simulation, and connecting to external devices. The five proposed research questions of the study are: How does students’ CT change throughout their participation in the neural engineering design process? What is the cross-cultural validity of two CT scales in a sample of high school students in the US? How does the process of collecting and analyzing real-world data relate to students’ experience of he engineering design process? How do students’ attitudes toward STEM change over the course of their participation in a neural engineering design process? How does teachers’ self-efficacy for fostering CT in their students via engineering design change through their participation in professional development and in implementation of the proposed curriculum?

Empowering Teachers to See and Support Student Use of Crosscutting Concepts in the Life Sciences

The project focuses on the development of formative assessment tools that highlight assets of students’ use of crosscutting concepts (CCCs) while engaged in science and engineering practices in grades 9-12 Life Sciences.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2100822
Funding Period: 
Sun, 08/01/2021 to Wed, 07/31/2024
Full Description: 

The project focuses on the development of formative assessment tools that highlight assets of students’ use of crosscutting concepts (CCCs) while engaged in science and engineering practices in grades 9-12 Life Sciences. In response to the calls set forth by the Framework for K-12 Science Education and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the field has most successfully researched and developed assessment tools for disciplinary core ideas and the science and engineering practices. The CCCs, which serve as the connective links across science domains, however, remain more abstractly addressed. Presently, science educators have little guidance for what student use of CCCs looks like or how to assess and nurture such use. This project, with its explicit attention to the CCCs, advances true three-dimensional scientific understanding in both research and the classroom. Leveraging formative assessment as a vehicle for student and teacher development taps into proven successful instructional strategies (e.g., sharing visions of successful learning, descriptive feedback, self-assessment), while also advancing formative assessment, itself, by strengthening and illustrating how these strategies may focus on the CCCs. Further, a strengths-based approach will center culturally related differences in students’ use of CCCs to achieve more equitable opportunities to engage in classroom sensemaking practices. This work impacts the field of science education by 1) enabling a more thorough realization of NGSS ideals, 2) strengthening teachers’ abilities to identify diverse demonstrations of CCCs, and 3) showcasing the impact of novel classroom tools to sharpen teachers’ abilities to solicit, notice, and act upon evidence of emergent student scientific thinking within their instructional practices.

This design-based implementation research project will engage teachers in the iterative development and refinement of rubrics that support three-dimensional science understanding through formative assessment. The high school biology classrooms that compose the study site are engaged in ambitious science teaching-inspired instruction. An inductive, bottom-up approach (Brookhart, 2013) will allow researchers, teachers, and students to co-construct rubrics. Analysis of classroom observations, artifact collection, interviews with teachers and students, and expert-panel ratings will produce a rubric for each CCC that integrates relevant science and engineering practices and is applicable across a range of disciplinary core ideas. These rubrics will illustrate progressions of increasingly advanced use of each of the CCCs, to guide the construction, pursuit, and assessment of learning goals. There will be two design cycles that allow for the collection of validity evidence and produce rubrics with the potential for broad application by educators. Complementary lines of qualitative and quantitative (i.e., psychometric) analysis will contribute to development and validation of the rubrics and their formative uses. Project inquiry will focus on 1) how the rubrics can represent CCCs for key disciplinary practices, 2) the extent to which teachers’ and students’ understandings of the rubrics align, and 3) how implementation of the rubrics impacts teachers’ and students’ understandings of the CCCs.

SimSnap: Orchestrating Collaborative Learning in Biology through Reconfigurable Simulations (Collective Research: Puntambekar)

This project will develop and research collaborative learning in biology using tablet-style computers that support simulations of biological systems and that can be used individually or linked together. The project will be implemented over 4 years in middle school life science classes, in which students will solve important socio-scientific problems, such as growing healthy plants in community gardens to address the need to grow sufficient produce to fulfill ever increasing and varying demands.

Award Number: 
2010357
Funding Period: 
Sat, 08/01/2020 to Wed, 07/31/2024
Full Description: 

The project will develop and research collaborative learning in biology using tablet-style computers that support simulations of biological systems and that can be used individually or linked together. The project will be implemented over 4 years in middle school life science classes, in which students will solve important socio-scientific problems, such as growing healthy plants in community gardens to address the need to grow sufficient produce to fulfill ever increasing and varying demands. Working within a digital plant habitat simulation, students will investigate how different environmental and genetic factors affect the health of a variety of plants and vegetables. As students engage in design tasks, they will be able to seamlessly move between individual and collaborative work with peers by "snapping" their tablets together (by placing them next to each other) to create a single shared simulation that spans all their devices. Students will be able to drop elements of their individual inquiry activities (e.g., plant types, soil compositions) into their shared simulation, providing opportunities for collaborative discussion and knowledge integration. When students "unsnap" their tablets, their collaborative work will stay with them in a digital journal, for individual reflection or as a resource for future collaborative activities (with potentially new group members). Project curriculum units will help students see the connections between the science concepts and principles they are learning, as they iteratively work on their designs through a combination of individual, collaborative and whole class learning. This work will also develop new approaches that help teachers understand the state of the class when students are taking part open-ended biology investigations, and support the teacher classroom orchestration and facilitation. Project research findings, materials and software will be made available to interested teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers nationwide on the project website.

The project will research collaborative learning along three planesindividual, small group and whole classwith technologies and classroom teachers supporting learning in innovative ways. Research has shown that technology can support collaborative learning, but there is limited research on how it can support transitions between individual and collaborative learning. While research has also shown that collaborative or individual learning may be more beneficial depending on the task or learning goal, there are relatively few studies that examine the potential for learning when students move between these social planes. Further, as these configurations become increasingly complex, there is also the challenge of how to support teachers' orchestration and facilitation. Studies will focus around four main research questions: 1) How does engaging in personally relevant biology curriculum through user-driven investigations help students understand the underlying science content? 2) How are students using and sharing the work of others to develop their own understanding about the underlying science concepts? 3) How do designs that allow for the movement between individual, small group, and whole class configurations allow students to work as a learning community? 4) How does the technology platform support teachers in orchestrating and facilitating classroom activities? Project studies will follow a design-based research methodology, guided by the premise that learning in naturalistic settings is the product of multiple interacting variables that cannot be reduced to a small set of controlled factors. The research will be broken down across four main developmental arcs: Technology design and iteration; Facilitation, user testing, and co-design; Classroom implementation; and Research and analysis. Each of the designed technologies will be user tested in the lab prior to being deployed in the classroom. Part of the analysis will focus on how the different technologies (i.e., individual and connected tablets, the teacher orchestration tablet) support learning and collaboration in naturalistic settings. The project research framework provides a way to examine the usability, usefulness and impact of interactions in a multi-user collaborative context using a mixed-method approach with various quantitative measures and qualitative indicators. Teachers will be prepared to use the system through 2-week summer institutes, during which they will also participate in co-design of the curriculum and the technology. Project research findings, materials and software will be made available to interested teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers nationwide on the project website, as well as being disseminated to appropriate audiences via conference presentations and publications.

SimSnap: Orchestrating Collaborative Learning in Biology through Reconfigurable Simulations (Collective Research: Tissenbaum)

This project will develop and research collaborative learning in biology using tablet-style computers that support simulations of biological systems and that can be used individually or linked together. The project will be implemented over 4 years in middle school life science classes, in which students will solve important socio-scientific problems, such as growing healthy plants in community gardens to address the need to grow sufficient produce to fulfill ever increasing and varying demands.

Award Number: 
2010456
Funding Period: 
Sat, 08/01/2020 to Wed, 07/31/2024
Full Description: 

The project will develop and research collaborative learning in biology using tablet-style computers that support simulations of biological systems and that can be used individually or linked together. The project will be implemented over 4 years in middle school life science classes, in which students will solve important socio-scientific problems, such as growing healthy plants in community gardens to address the need to grow sufficient produce to fulfill ever increasing and varying demands. Working within a digital plant habitat simulation, students will investigate how different environmental and genetic factors affect the health of a variety of plants and vegetables. As students engage in design tasks, they will be able to seamlessly move between individual and collaborative work with peers by "snapping" their tablets together (by placing them next to each other) to create a single shared simulation that spans all their devices. Students will be able to drop elements of their individual inquiry activities (e.g., plant types, soil compositions) into their shared simulation, providing opportunities for collaborative discussion and knowledge integration. When students "unsnap" their tablets, their collaborative work will stay with them in a digital journal, for individual reflection or as a resource for future collaborative activities (with potentially new group members). Project curriculum units will help students see the connections between the science concepts and principles they are learning, as they iteratively work on their designs through a combination of individual, collaborative and whole class learning. This work will also develop new approaches that help teachers understand the state of the class when students are taking part open-ended biology investigations, and support the teacher classroom orchestration and facilitation. Project research findings, materials and software will be made available to interested teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers nationwide on the project website.

The project will research collaborative learning along three planesindividual, small group and whole classwith technologies and classroom teachers supporting learning in innovative ways. Research has shown that technology can support collaborative learning, but there is limited research on how it can support transitions between individual and collaborative learning. While research has also shown that collaborative or individual learning may be more beneficial depending on the task or learning goal, there are relatively few studies that examine the potential for learning when students move between these social planes. Further, as these configurations become increasingly complex, there is also the challenge of how to support teachers' orchestration and facilitation. Studies will focus around four main research questions: 1) How does engaging in personally relevant biology curriculum through user-driven investigations help students understand the underlying science content? 2) How are students using and sharing the work of others to develop their own understanding about the underlying science concepts? 3) How do designs that allow for the movement between individual, small group, and whole class configurations allow students to work as a learning community? 4) How does the technology platform support teachers in orchestrating and facilitating classroom activities? Project studies will follow a design-based research methodology, guided by the premise that learning in naturalistic settings is the product of multiple interacting variables that cannot be reduced to a small set of controlled factors. The research will be broken down across four main developmental arcs: Technology design and iteration; Facilitation, user testing, and co-design; Classroom implementation; and Research and analysis. Each of the designed technologies will be user tested in the lab prior to being deployed in the classroom. Part of the analysis will focus on how the different technologies (i.e., individual and connected tablets, the teacher orchestration tablet) support learning and collaboration in naturalistic settings. The project research framework provides a way to examine the usability, usefulness and impact of interactions in a multi-user collaborative context using a mixed-method approach with various quantitative measures and qualitative indicators. Teachers will be prepared to use the system through 2-week summer institutes, during which they will also participate in co-design of the curriculum and the technology. Project research findings, materials and software will be made available to interested teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers nationwide on the project website, as well as being disseminated to appropriate audiences via conference presentations and publications.

Developing Teachers' Epistemic Cognition and Teaching Practices for Supporting Students' Epistemic Practices with Scientific Systems

This project uses a new theoretical framework that specifies criteria for developing scientific thinking skills that include the value that people place on scientific aims, the cognitive engagement needed to evaluate scientific claims, and the scientific skills that will enable one to arrive at the best supported explanation of a scientific phenomenon.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2009803
Funding Period: 
Wed, 07/01/2020 to Sun, 06/30/2024
Full Description: 

This project aims to investigate needs and challenges in developing an informed public able to evaluate empirical evidence generated from scientific activities. At the core of this research are two intertwined issues: (1) epistemic practices--how people acquire knowledge of science and how they evaluate knowledge sources; and (2) how people improve their abilities to evaluate these knowledge sources so as to improve their abilities to develop and use scientific knowledge. While much science education research has focused on helping students develop these abilities such as through scientific argumentation and modeling (hereafter referred to as scientific thinking), much less research has focused on how teachers acquire this understanding and how their understanding informs their instruction. Until recently, the science education field has lacked a comprehensive framework to support the acquisition, evaluation, and use of scientific knowledge sources. This project uses a new theoretical framework that specifies criteria for developing these scientific thinking skills that include, among others, the value that people place on scientific aims, the cognitive engagement needed to evaluate scientific claims, and the scientific skills that will enable one to arrive at the best supported explanation of a scientific phenomenon. The project will work with high school biology teachers to investigate their own understanding of scientific thinking, how it can be improved through professional development, and how this improvement can translate into practice to support student learning.

The project will work with 20 teachers and classrooms that will impact approximately 1500 to 3000 students. Teachers will act as design collaborators in three iterations of design and development activities with a goal to produce effective professional development supports with proven student outcomes that can be broadly disseminated. Data collection each year will entail: (1) 40 to 60 video-recordings of teacher instruction and student interactions; (2) Content and pedagogical content knowledge surveys from teachers and students; (3) Teacher pre- and post-interviews; and (4) Teacher and student artifacts that demonstrate the extent to which scientific thinking has been achieved. The data will be analyzed through a mixed-methods approach. Qualitative data will be analyzed through validated coding manuals that specify a range of abilities in scientific thinking. Likert-scale and open-ended survey questions will be used to measure changes in instruction and learning outcomes in various factors related to the research goals.

Supporting Students' Language, Knowledge, and Culture through Science

This project will test and refine a teaching model that brings together current research about the role of language in science learning, the role of cultural connections in students' science engagement, and how students' science knowledge builds over time. The outcome of this project will be to provide an integrated framework that can guide current and future science teachers in preparing all students with the conceptual and linguistic practices they will need to succeed in school and in the workplace.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2010633
Funding Period: 
Tue, 09/01/2020 to Sat, 08/31/2024
Full Description: 

The Language, Culture, and Knowledge-building through Science project seeks to explore and positively influence the work of science teachers at the intersection of three significant and ongoing challenges affecting U.S. STEM education. First, U.S. student demographics are rapidly changing, with an increasing number of students learning STEM subjects in their second language. This change means that all teachers need new skills for meeting students where they currently are, linguistically, culturally, and in terms of prior science knowledge. Second, the needs and opportunities of the national STEM workforce are changing rapidly within a shifting employment landscape. This shift means that teachers need to better understand future job opportunities and the knowledge and skills that will be necessary in those careers. Third, academic expectations in schools have changed, driven by changes in education standards. These new expectations mean that teachers need new skills to support all students to master a range of practices that are both conceptual and linguistic. To address these challenges, teachers require new models that bring together current research about the role of language in science learning, the role of cultural connections in students' science engagement, and how students' science knowledge builds over time. This project begins with such an initial model, developed collaboratively with science teachers in a prior project. The model will be rigorously tested and refined in a new geographic and demographic context. The outcome will be to provide an integrated framework that can guide current and future science teachers in preparing all students with the conceptual and linguistic practices they will need to succeed in school and in the workplace.

This project model starts with three theoretical constructs that have been integrated into an innovative framework of nine practices. These practices guide teachers in how to simultaneously support students' language development, cultural sustenance, and knowledge building through science with a focus on supporting and challenging multilingual learners. The project uses a functional view of language development, which highlights the need to support students in understanding both how and why to make shifts in language use. For example, students' attention will be drawn to differences in language use when they shift from language that is suited to peer negotiation in a lab group to written explanations suitable for a lab report. Moving beyond a funds of knowledge approach to culture, the team view of integrating students' cultural knowledge includes strengthening the role of home knowledge in school, but also guiding students to apply school knowledge to their out-of-school interests and passions. Finally, the project team's view of cumulative knowledge building, informed by work in the sociology of knowledge, highlights the need for teachers and students to understand the norms for meaning making within a given discipline. In the case of science, the three-dimensional learning model in the Next Generation Science Standards makes these disciplinary norms visible and serves as a launching point for the project's work. Teachers will be supported to structure learning opportunities that highlight what is unique about meaning making through science. Using a range of data collection and analysis methods, the project team will study changes in teachers' practices and beliefs related to language, culture and knowledge building, as teachers work with all students, and particularly with multilingual learners. The project work will take place in both classrooms and out of class science learning settings. By working closely over several years with a group of fifty science teachers spread across the state of Oregon, the project team will develop a typology of teachers (design personas) to increase the field's understanding of how to support different teachers, given their own backgrounds, in preparing all students for the broad range of academic and occupational pathways they will encounter.

Supporting Elementary Teacher Learning for Effective School-Based Citizen Science (TL4CS)

This project will develop two forms of support for teachers: guidance embedded in citizen science project materials and teacher professional development. The overarching goal of the project is to generate knowledge about teacher learning that enables elementary school citizen science to support students' engagement with authentic science content and practices through data collection and sense making.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2009212
Funding Period: 
Wed, 07/01/2020 to Sun, 06/30/2024
Full Description: 

Citizen science involves individuals, who are not professional scientists, in authentic scientific research, typically in collaboration with professional scientists. When implemented well in elementary schools, citizen science projects immerse students in science content and engage them with scientific practices. These projects can also create opportunities for students to connect with their local natural surroundings, which is needed, as some research has suggested that children are becoming increasingly detached from nature. The classroom teacher plays a critical role in ensuring that school-based citizen science projects are implemented in a way that maximizes the benefits. However, these projects typically do not include substantial guidance for teachers who want to implement the projects for instructional purposes. This project will develop two forms of support for teachers: (1) guidance embedded in citizen science project materials and (2) teacher professional development. It will develop materials and professional development experiences to support teacher learning for 80 5th grade teachers impacting students in 40 diverse elementary schools.

The overarching goal of this project is to generate knowledge about teacher learning that enables elementary school citizen science to support students' engagement with authentic science content and practices through data collection and sense making. Specifically, the study is designed to address the following research questions: (1) What kinds of support foster teacher learning for enacting effective school-based citizen science? (2) How do supports for teacher learning shape the way teachers enact school-based citizen science? and (3) What is the potential of school-based citizen science for positively influencing student learning and student attitudes toward nature and science? Data collected during project implementation will include teacher surveys, student surveys and assessments, and case study protocols.

How Deep Structural Modeling Supports Learning with Big Ideas in Biology (Collaborative Research: Capps)

This project addresses the pressing need to more effectively organize STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching and learning around "big ideas" that run through science disciplines. Unfortunately, finding ways to teach big ideas effectively so they become useful as knowledge frameworks is a significant challenge. Deep structure modeling (DSM), the innovation advanced in this project, is designed to meet this challenge in the context of high school biology.

Lead Organization(s): 
Partner Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2010223
Funding Period: 
Sat, 08/01/2020 to Wed, 07/31/2024
Full Description: 

This project addresses the pressing need to more effectively organize STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching and learning around "big ideas" that run through science disciplines. This need is forcefully advanced by policy leaders including the National Research Council and the College Board. They point out that learning is more effective when students organize and link information within a consistent knowledge framework, which is what big ideas should provide. Unfortunately, finding ways to teach big ideas effectively so they become useful as knowledge frameworks is a significant challenge. Deep structure modeling (DSM), the innovation advanced in this project, is designed to meet this challenge in the context of high school biology. In DSM, students learn a big idea as the underlying, or "deep" structure of a set of examples that contain the structure, but with varying outward details. As learners begin to apprehend the deep structure (i.e., the big idea) within the examples, they use the tools and procedures of scientific modeling to express and develop it. According to theories of learning that undergird DSM, the result of this process should be a big idea that is flexible, meaningful, and easy to express, thus providing an ideal framework for making sense of new information learners encounter (i.e., learning with the big idea). To the extent that this explanation is born out in rigorous research tests and within authentic curriculum materials, it contributes important knowledge about how teaching and learning can be organized around big ideas, and not only for deep structural modeling but for other instructional approaches as well.

This project has twin research and prototype development components. Both are taking place in the context of high school biology, in nine classrooms across three districts, supporting up to 610 students. The work focuses on three design features of DSM: (1) embedding model source materials with intuitive, mechanistic ideas; (2) supporting learners to abstract those ideas as a deep structure shared by a set of sources; and (3) representing this deep structure efficiently within the model. In combination, these features support students to understand an abstract, intuitively rich, and efficient knowledge structure that they subsequently use as a framework to interpret, organize, and link disciplinary content. A series of five research studies build on one another to develop knowledge about whether and how the design features bring about these anticipated effects. Earlier studies in the sequence are small-scale classroom experiments randomly assigning students to either deep structural modeling or to parallel, non modeling controls. Measures discriminate for the anticipated effects during learning and on posttests. Later studies use qualitative methods to carefully trace the anticipated effects over time and across topics. As a group, these studies are contributing generalized knowledge of how learners can effectively abstract and represent big ideas and how these ideas can be leveraged as frameworks for learning content with understanding. Two research-tested biology curriculum prototypes are being developed as the studies evolve: a quarter-year DSM biology curriculum centered on energy; and an eighth-year DSM unit centered on natural selection.

How Deep Structural Modeling Supports Learning with Big Ideas in Biology (Collaborative Research: Shemwell)

This project addresses the pressing need to more effectively organize STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching and learning around "big ideas" that run through science disciplines. Unfortunately, finding ways to teach big ideas effectively so they become useful as knowledge frameworks is a significant challenge. Deep structure modeling (DSM), the innovation advanced in this project, is designed to meet this challenge in the context of high school biology.

Lead Organization(s): 
Partner Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
2010334
Funding Period: 
Sat, 08/01/2020 to Wed, 07/31/2024
Full Description: 

This project addresses the pressing need to more effectively organize STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching and learning around "big ideas" that run through science disciplines. This need is forcefully advanced by policy leaders including the National Research Council and the College Board. They point out that learning is more effective when students organize and link information within a consistent knowledge framework, which is what big ideas should provide. Unfortunately, finding ways to teach big ideas effectively so they become useful as knowledge frameworks is a significant challenge. Deep structure modeling (DSM), the innovation advanced in this project, is designed to meet this challenge in the context of high school biology. In DSM, students learn a big idea as the underlying, or "deep" structure of a set of examples that contain the structure, but with varying outward details. As learners begin to apprehend the deep structure (i.e., the big idea) within the examples, they use the tools and procedures of scientific modeling to express and develop it. According to theories of learning that undergird DSM, the result of this process should be a big idea that is flexible, meaningful, and easy to express, thus providing an ideal framework for making sense of new information learners encounter (i.e., learning with the big idea). To the extent that this explanation is born out in rigorous research tests and within authentic curriculum materials, it contributes important knowledge about how teaching and learning can be organized around big ideas, and not only for deep structural modeling but for other instructional approaches as well.

This project has twin research and prototype development components. Both are taking place in the context of high school biology, in nine classrooms across three districts, supporting up to 610 students. The work focuses on three design features of DSM: (1) embedding model source materials with intuitive, mechanistic ideas; (2) supporting learners to abstract those ideas as a deep structure shared by a set of sources; and (3) representing this deep structure efficiently within the model. In combination, these features support students to understand an abstract, intuitively rich, and efficient knowledge structure that they subsequently use as a framework to interpret, organize, and link disciplinary content. A series of five research studies build on one another to develop knowledge about whether and how the design features bring about these anticipated effects. Earlier studies in the sequence are small-scale classroom experiments randomly assigning students to either deep structural modeling or to parallel, non modeling controls. Measures discriminate for the anticipated effects during learning and on posttests. Later studies use qualitative methods to carefully trace the anticipated effects over time and across topics. As a group, these studies are contributing generalized knowledge of how learners can effectively abstract and represent big ideas and how these ideas can be leveraged as frameworks for learning content with understanding. Two research-tested biology curriculum prototypes are being developed as the studies evolve: a quarter-year DSM biology curriculum centered on energy; and an eighth-year DSM unit centered on natural selection.

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