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Elementary students need to have meaningful experiences with the life sciences in order to develop understanding of the natural world. However, they often possess alternative ideas about core life-science concepts that may not be scientifically accurate. There is a need for innovative science curriculum and instruction that is responsive to students' ideas, to help students develop a foundation of disciplinary knowledge that will ground their science learning in later grades. Formative assessment gives teachers an important toolkit to elicit, evaluate, and respond to students' ideas. Formative-assessment practices are discipline-specific, in that they require teachers to possess both disciplinary content knowledge and sufficient pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). Unfortunately, formative-assessment practices are not widely used in elementary classrooms; this may be due to elementary teachers' limited disciplinary knowledge and PCK of science topics. Teachers need support in learning how to effectively engage in formative-assessment practices and to integrate the strategies into science classrooms. To address this need, we designed an innovative new course for prospective elementary teachers that integrates life-science disciplinary knowledge with instiuctional methods — in particular, formative assessment. Here, we describe the course and highlight key findings from its first implementation.
Until about two decades ago, the standard method of studying a microbe was to isolate it, grow it in culture, stain it, and examine it under a microscope. Today, new genomic tools are helping expand our view of the microbial world. Instead of viewing them as “germs” to be eliminated, we are beginning to perceive our microbes as an extension of ourselves — an important organ with unique functions essential to our well-being. Scientists even came up with a new term, “microbiome,” to define our microbes' genes as an important counterpart to our human genome. With new information about the human microbiome comes the challenge of shifting biology students' focus from casting microbes as pathogens toward appreciating microbes as symbionts. “The Human Microbiome,” a curriculum supplement produced by the Genetic Science Learning Center, emphasizes that microbes living in and on our bodies perform neutral and beneficial functions, that human microbiota form thriving ecosystems, and that disruptions to our microbial ecosystems may have consequences. In this article, we describe the curriculum materials, provide strategies for incorporating this cutting-edge topic into biology classrooms, list connections to the Next Generation Science Standards, and report on recent research testing the curriculum supplement's effectiveness for student learning.
Scoring rubrics are widely employed across content areas and grade levels, including in high school biology classes. Besides regular external use within accountability systems, educators also have advanced their instructional use inside classrooms. In recent years, a consensus appears to be emerging in the educational literature that instructional use of rubrics is beneficial for student learning, and numerous examples in the research and practitioner literature establish their importance in teachers' planning, instruction, and assessment. We examine this assumption through close analysis of students' use of a scoring rubric in a high school biology classroom. We explore how instructional use of a scoring rubric influences biology teaching and learning activities, what messages about knowledge and learning such use conveys to students, and what influence such use may have on students' emergent understandings of what constitutes quality in biological thinking and practice. Our analysis suggests that instructional use of scoring rubrics can actually undermine the very learning it is intended to support. We discuss an alternative way to help students understand what constitutes high-quality work, and we draw implications for science teacher education.
Invasive species are an issue of global concern because they can have large impacts on ecosystems and are challenging to manage. We present an activity aimed at improving undergraduate students' understanding of the ecological impacts and management of invasive species. Students work collaboratively in teams to examine the impacts of a particular invasive species on an ecosystem (a fictional national park). The teams then propose policies that would assist their park in minimizing the introduction and impacts of the invasive species, and discuss potential limitations of these proposed policies. Finally, the teams present their proposals in class, which allows for class discussions and opportunities for collaborative learning. By engaging in this activity, students can develop a more concrete understanding and appreciation of both the impacts of invasive species and the challenges involved in managing them.
Laboratories in introductory biology must engage and excite students in ways that effectively prepare them to succeed in upper-level courses in a field with a rapidly increasing body of knowledge. Our inquiry-based lab immerses students in the process of science by asking them to develop behavioral bioassays to test the response of aquatic macroinvertebrates to various pollutants. Students begin with literature review and hypothesis generation on an open-ended question; continue through experimental design, data collection, and analysis; and finish with writing a paper that is peer reviewed. A series of weekly lab activities serves to scaffold key skills that enable completion of the behavioral bioassays, and a final field aquaticbiomonitoring project connects lab work to real-life environmental issues. Because not much is known about how certain pollutants affect the behavior of specific aquatic invertebrates, students' curiosity is piqued by new discovery, and instructors are engaged by the sense of partnering with students to explore the unknown. This module requires that students engage in core biological concepts, including the significance of variation in living organisms, the structure and function of organisms, and impacts of environmental change on both homeostasis and populations.
This laboratory exercise enables students to measure changes in blood vessel diameter in the tail of the goldfish (Carassius auratus) using ImageJ software. The lab can be adapted for different course levels and equipment. Students can also perform statistical analyses on the results.
Optimal foraging theory explains that organisms whose foraging is as energetically efficient as possible should be favored by natural selection. However, many individuals must exhibit trade-offs between foraging and other factors in their environment (i.e., predation risk, competitive interactions). We present a hands-on activity for undergraduates using just a deck of cards, bingo chips, and dice to introduce ecological concepts of foraging theory, predator—prey interactions, and energy trade-offs. Specifically, this activity will focus on optimal foraging theory and giving-up density. Students should gain an understanding of how organisms balance predation risk and competitive interactions with energetic demands. Further, this activity can be scaled for nonmajors and introductory courses to introduce general ecological concepts, or for upper-division courses to explore advanced topics in foraging theory.
In our first-year university botany classes at Charles Sturt University, we noticed that in laboratory class, students were taking photographs of their specimens with the dissecting and compound microscopes using their mobile phones. Student-generated images as “learning objects” were used to enhance the engagement of all students, including Distance Education students who used images provided by the on-campus students. The Distance Education students did all the laboratory work at an intensive residential school, and they were encouraged to take images; these were shared with on-campus students, making them aware of the laboratory practical work they were yet to do. In other cases, images from students were incorporated into lectures and tutorials, preparing students for the lab exam. Botany students have shared their photomicrographs with their friends and family via social media. We saw interesting examples of students excitedly describing their images to non-science friends, teaching them what they were learning! In the second year, students were also encouraged to use their phones to capture their own images of plant specimens to help them master plant identification. Although we do not have any quantitative evidence of these activities enhancing student learning, it was evident that those students who took and shared their own images were more engaged in the learning process.
Scientists often integrate measurements and data from various sources to ask questions and perform investigations. The exercises described here allow students to think critically and understand concepts that affect biological organisms as they make hypotheses about a selected stream or river, then graph, analyze, and interpret physical and chemical water-quality data (and possibly weather data) from local sources. Details on how to access, download, and manage data sets are provided.
This exercise examines the correlation between gravitational-force (g-force) tolerance and the sizes of organisms, emphasizing differences between vertebrates and invertebrates, particularly the effects of size and scale on biological processes. Students form a hypothesis based on background information and then test it by spinning subjects in a centrifuge. Class results can be graphed, analyzed, and compared to human tolerance. The activity engages students in scientific process while investigating the effects of physical forces on structure and function.