How can we make STEM classes more equitable?
Dr. Cissy Ballen, PhD, assistant professor at Auburn University, is a discipline-based education researcher working hard to find answers to this question. Turns out, university education is all too familiar with the student-deficit model, which focuses on shortcomings of students coming into a classroom. Instead, Dr. Ballen's group uses the framework of the course-deficit model, which posits that class conditions favor certain student groups over others. Using the course-deficit model enables Dr. Ballen's team to study performance and participation gaps in order to increase equity across student groups across STEM.
Building off the work of Koester and colleagues (2016), Dr. Ballen's team found that in their student samples across two science colleges, female students only under-performed male students on exams in courses that had high-stakes examinations. But, why is this? Ballen and colleagues further explored mediating variables, such as ACT and text-anxiety, unveiling more gendered differences between outcomes. Importantly, these gender gaps are mitigated when educators minimize the risk associated with high stakes examinations (like exams worth 50% of final course grade being reduced to less than 40% of the final course grade). Ballen's work has also shown that class size can be another factor influencing gender dynamics in the classroom, where female students in larger classes are less likely to voluntarily interact with their professor in class. She implores us to consider the weight of these ideas beyond the university classroom.
Lindsay MacMillan, Biology TA and graduate student, came to Dr. Ballen's talk because she was interested in becoming a better educator. "I liked that [Dr. Ballen] talked about the student versus the course deficit. We need to be thinking about how to change course structure, not the student." Dr. Ballen's outlook asked the audience to consider that classroom experiences are consequential and that they shape perceptions of ability to complete coursework. MacMillan responded, "Equity in the classroom seems increasingly important. It's under out control as educators in the classroom, even if its not always present in society. So we should help make things right."
Dr. Cissy Ballen presents her work to the UAB ROSE community.
Do students learn more if they have pre, in-class, and post assessments? The answer is yes according to the latest work led by Dr. Shaffer, a teaching professor in the Department of Chemical and Biology Engineering Colorado School of Mines (click here for his faculty website). Dr. Shaffer's educational research highlights the importance of course-structure in large-enrollment Biology and Engineering courses. This follows-- when students interact with course material more and more, they do better in the course. Dr. Shaffer came all the way from Colorado to give a seminar to ROSE about this research. But that's not all his team has found. Specifically, when they investigated the use of optional reading guides, which are designed to supplement textbook readings, they noticed the more often students used reading guides the better they did in the course. (In fact-- this research has led our own Dr. Sami Raut to implement optional reading guides in her courses at UAB!) Dr. Shaffer went on to talk about his recent work that contrasts engineering and biology perceptions about math. Turns out, in his student population, engineering majors were more likely to have negative attitudes about biology but positive attitudes about math and biology majors were more likely to have negative views on math. These insights about course-structure and other student attitudes were a big hit by the 40 or so attendees.
"After teaching many years, improvements are harder to come by from your own mind. You get tapped out. Going to [ROSE] meetings gives me new ideas about what works that I can use in my classes to continue to improve. These short [ROSE] meetings are perfect for a busy professor, " said Dr. Robin Foley, UAB Associate professor in Engineering, who attended Dr. Shaffer's talk. In response to Dr. Shaffer's results, Dr. Foley noted, "Got several ideas to try in my class with too many students!"
Dr. Shaffer presents his work to the UAB ROSE community.
Colonizing Mars through space exploration is no easy feat. Tackling contemporary issues to space exploration requires huge multi-disciplinary teams of computer scientists, biologists, engineers, over years and years of research. Who do you picture doing this work? Are they in grandeous high-tech NASA labs? This week, Dr. Melanie Moses, from the University of New Mexico Department of Computer Science, showed us how she is changing these conceptions by inviting thousands of high school students, most of whom are women and students of color, to participate in "Swarmathon" competitions in large parking lots. Students program algorithms for biomimetic robots (initially modeled after ants and other swarming biological creatures), for the robots to efficiently collect resources, modeling Mars exploration in ways that could prove beneficial to NASA. Importantly, Dr. Moses' research has shown over 90% of participants were interested in pursuing degrees in Computer Science. Taken together, this outreach program can not only provide important algorithms for NASA, but can diversify our conceptions of what it means to be a space explorer.
Students often struggle to develop an intuitive understanding of the core ideas underlying evolutionary biology. For instance, the concept of "randomness" and how it impacts evolution are not as obvious as we might think. Wouldn't it be cool if there was a way for students to watch evolution happening in real time experiments where they could get a first-hand appreciation for how these things work?
Enter AVIDA, a computer platform where virtual computers -- basically domesticated computer viruses -- compete with each other for access to the computer's processor and memory. AVIDA 'organisms' have 'genomes' -- strings of computer code that let them copy themselves as well as do math operations that get them 'energy'. These genomes mutate randomly during copying, allowing the 'Avidians' to evolve. Importantly, AVIDA isn't a simulation of evolution, but rather a different kind of 'life' that obeys the same laws of selection and drift as the biological world.
AVIDA-ED is a platform developed for using AVIDA in the classroom. It's a simple desktop or browser interface where the user has lots of options for how to set up the 'world' the Avidians will compete in. For our ROSE November Lunch Meeting, Dr. Mickie Powell (UAB Biology) will give us a workshop on how to use AVIDA-ED in an introductory biology classroom. Prior to attending the meeting, please download and read the two files below. Also, go ahead and take a look at the web-based version of AVIDA-ED.
Dr. Rosianna Gray, PhD, from the University of Alabama at Birmimgham led a thoughtful in person and virtual live conversation called "Get Students to Focus on Learning Instead of Grades: Metacognition is the Key" with ROSE members Wednesday, October, 3 2018. Dr. Gray discussed how she helps her introductory students think about their own learning behaviors instead of focusing on just getting good grades. Her insight included telling students to understand material covered in class as though they were needing to teach it and not just taking a test. She also recommends students gradually go through the material in small chunks using variant approaches while self assessing over a longer period of time instead of becoming intimated by large spreads of content. In this way, students can meaningfully engage with the fascinating topics covered in STEM courses and become as passionate as they are smart. In her words "All students are smart. Some just need to adjust their learning behaviors to reach their full potential in class."
Materials from Dr. Gray's Metacognition workshop can be found below:
THE ROSE NETWORK IS NOW FUNDED!
Congratulations to Dr. Jeff Morris, Dr. Trent Sutton, Dr. Jeff Olimpo, and Dr. Sami Raut
In the first back to school meeting of the 2018-19 school year, new and old ROSE members were introduced to the updated direction of the network following NSF funding. Jeff Morris provided a brief history of the network from his end and Jeff Olimpo (UTEP) and Trent Sutton (UA Fairbanks) discussed their new roles in the network. It was discussed that each hub university (UAB, UTEP, and UAF) would intend on assisting a network of community college partners in biology education to enhance the experience of incoming transfer students. Members discussed future directions, including:
Work got you stressed? Or are you talking about education reform so much that you need to spread the word at the local brewery? Good thing ROSE has social events at Cahaba Brewery! The first of many ROSE social was held on Wednesday September 12, 2018. We had fun and saw some new faces, and you can too if you join us for the next one on Wednesday October 17, 2018.
UAB'S biology department had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Sara Brownell of Arizona State University for our weekly seminar series in April 2018. Dr. Brownell is well-known for her work on STEM education pedagogy and her advocacy for active learning and student-centered teaching approaches. Her seminar, "From Conflict to Common Ground: A Call to Use Cultural Competency in Teaching Evolution", focused on work done by Dr. Brownell and her graduate student Liz Barnes about instructor/student interactions influencing acceptance of human evolution in college evolutionary biology courses. Unsurprisingly, Barnes and Brownell discovered that instructor hostility toward religion is an important factor preventing religious students from accepting evolution. Assuming that professors are unlikely to become more religious, and students are unlikely to become less so, Dr. Brownell outlined a strategy to bridge the divide by directly addressing students' beliefs. By simply acknowledging the existence of students' religious beliefs and stating that religion and evolution don't have to be mutually exclusive beliefs, Brownell increased her students' acceptance of macro evolution. In addition to acknowledging religious beliefs, educators can also use other culturally competent strategies like showing students that well-known scientists are religious. Their umbrella framework for unifying these strategies is known as Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education (ReCCEE). Dr. Brownell modeled many ReCCEE strategies, as well as incorporating active-learning throughout her talk. The conversation followed during a ROSE lunch, where ROSE members led a discussion with Dr. Brownell about broader education reform.
Rachel Rock, undergraduate student working in Dr. Morris' lab who got to talk with Dr. Brownell after the lunch, said, "She was an inspiration. She made me feel like there is a place for me in academia and that the research I do is relevant." As UAB is emerging in education research and reform, Dr. Brownell's talk could not have come at a more opportune time.
For more information on her lab and its interests, visit: http://sebbers.wixsite.com/biology-ed-lab
The February ROSE Network lunch meeting featured a live-streamed seminar by Dr. Malcolm Campbell from Davidson College, hosted by Dr. Anil Challa (UAB). Dr. Campbell shared with us his experiences with introducing active learning and CUREs into the introductory Biology courses at his institution. He gave us some examples of how his new textbook, “Integrating Concepts in Biology”, uses real data from classic experiments to teach core biological concepts. For example, students can work with the original data from Meselson and Stahl’s classic study that proved that DNA replication is a semi-conservative process.
We also talked extensively about Dr. Campbell’s introductory lab course that uses IGEM-style synthetic biology to let students be creative while learning lab skills and improving understanding of genetic mechanisms and systems biology. Finally, ROSE Network members from UAB and Birmingham Southern had an informative back-and-forth with Dr. Campbell about the logistical challenges of implementing these kinds of reforms in a variety of institutional settings.