Our research in biology education has several major lines of inquiry that investigate (1) the teaching practices and student performance of postdocs who participated in the FIRST IV professional development program compared with faculty who did not participate; (2) the long-term impacts of a reformed introductory biology curriculum and instruction on student performance in subsequent upper-level biology courses; (3) model-based pedagogy as a strategy to help students conceptualize and reason about complex biological systems; (4) the impact of MSU's liberal learning curriculum on students' scientific reasoning; and (5) the pedagogical content knowledge of instructors in introductory biology course and its influence on instructional design.

In addition, we are developing a database to archive student assessment data that can be used to advance research on student learning. Our approaches to research in biology education are influenced by the long-term ecological reserach I conduct on alpine plant communities - long-term and multivariate. This year I will collect the year-40 data set on Niwot Ridge, Colorado, to test a model for forecasting alpine vegetation change with respect to global change.


FIRST IV Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching: Postdoctoral Scholars


FIRST IV is a national dissemination project designed to reform undergraduate biology education through professional development of 200 postdoctoral scholars. Through two intensive workshops and extensive mentoring by a team of scientists who are expert innovators, teachers, and professional developers, FIRST IV postdocs design learner-centered introductory biology courses that use active, inquiry-based pedagogies. During the academic year following the first workshop, postdocs teach an entire course or a portion of a course and receive mentoring from expert FIRST IV faculty. The research design for evaluating the effect of professional development on postdoctoral fellows' teaching and their students' learning includes a paired-course study of postdocs who are now faculty with peers in their institution, teaching a similar course, who did not participate in FIRST IV. Surveys, direct observations via videos, and class materials are key components of this analytical model. In addition, we are tracking the postdocs through tenure to evaluate the impact of their teaching toward promotion.



Reform of Introductory Biology: BioSci


Biological Sciences (BioSci) is a large introductory biology program at Michigan State University. We reformed BioSci 110, a course focused on populations and organisms, from a passive lecture format to an active, learner-centered course. Research in BioSci includes development of a reform model, implementing active learning pedagogies, and reforming accompanying laboratories. We are conducting a longitudinal study of student learning and views about science in subsequent introductory courses - genetics, ecology and evolution - to compare students from the reformed BioSci course with those who took other versions of the same course.




Model-Based Pedagogy


Understanding complex systems is fundamental to science and science education, especially in the biological systems. As part of the reform of BioSci toward a learner-centered pedagogy, we incorporated model-based learning to help students conceptualize and reason about complex biological systems and to provide a method for students to conceptualize complex biological systems. We are investigating the development of student modeling skills and their ability to represent and understand complex biological systems. Our research focuses on use of models for analyzing students thinking about biological systems and leads to the question, how do students learn synthesis?


Scientific Reasoning (SR)


We are conducting a longitudinal study on the impact of MSU's liberal learning education on students' knowledge of the nature of science, science competencies and abilities, and understanding of the integration and intersections of science and society. We deceloped the SR survey to align with the specific scientific reasoning goals for the liberal education courses. A large sample of incoming freshmen take this survey during orientation and after approximately 60 credits, a sample of the student population takes the SR survey again to measure change in performance. The findings of this research are used to inform the science faculty about students' abilities in scientific reasoning and to guide curricular reform in liberal learning courses.


Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK)


This research focuses on documentation of the knowledge that instructors of undergraduate biology courses have about: (a) the content that they teach, (b) how they teach specific biological concepts and why they teach the in a specific way, (c) how they think about common student biological prior knowledge and misconceptions and how to address these in their teaching, and (d) how they think about assessing student knowledge on specific biological concepts. The research in PCK of science instructors in higher education is extremely parse and limited and we will expand upon it to inform and enhance professional development programs.


FIRST III National Assessment Database for STEM Disciplines


We have constructed a beta-version of a database to support research on undergraduate STEM education. The database will support storing, searching, and analyzing assessment data from undergraduate STEM courses and will facilitate both data-driven instructional decision making and research on science education. Our goals for this project include: (1) developing faculty expertise in assessing student learning; and (2) evaluating innovations based on analyses of these data.





Graduate Teaching Assistant Professional Development


Graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs) teach a large number of undergraduate biology classes with little to no professional development specific to teaching college biology.  We conducted research on TA professional development as it has always been done in an introductory biology course; results informed the development of a new model of professional development that is learner-centered and active.  We are investigating TAs beliefs and classroom practices in response to each professional development model.


Prior Research


FIRST - the original project

The Faculty Institutes for Reformed Science Teaching (FIRST) are a model for faculty professional development that facilitate implementation of active learning and scientific teaching, and creates institutional infrastructures that support and sustain efforts to improve student learning in science. The original FIRST project began with five Field Station (FS) leadership teams that recruited three-person Institutional Teams (ITs) of faculty from 27 universities and colleges. The field stations were used as motivational and attractive venues to engage scientists/faculty in changing their teaching to improve student learning, first in the field, and then in their classrooms. Through FIRST, 92 faculty revised 322 courses to focus on active, inquiry-based science teaching and learning so that all students have the opportunity to gain scientific understanding. IT faculty were supported by their home institutions to travel to the field stations and three FS teams subsequently accrued their own funding for improving courses and curricula.



In 2001, FIRST expanded to eight FS leadership teams, supporting 42 ITs of faculty (collectively called FIRST faculty) from science departments in colleges and universities throughout the nation. FIRST II involved 49 academic institutions, ranging in classification from community colleges to research extensive universities. The 173 FIRST faculty impacts over 10,000 students annually.