BEACON Researchers at Work: Transforming Science Education

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU graduate student Wendy Johnson.

Wendy JohnsonI remember seeing the initial press releases about the launch of the BEACON Center at Michigan State. At the time I was teaching high school biology just down the road and finishing up a master’s degree in the (former) Division of Science and Math Education at MSU. My experiences as a teacher and in my master’s work had fueled my passion for improving public understanding of science and convinced me that reform in science education was absolutely necessary. I was pretty sure that I would soon leave the classroom and pursue doctoral study, but at the time I wasn’t sure whether that should be in evolutionary biology, education, or philosophy of science. I was equally interested in all three areas and each seemed integral to my goals.

The BEACON Center announcement caught my attention because of the multidisciplinary approach and goals for advancing science, technology, education, and public understanding of evolution. I thought it sounded like a great place for someone like me, but I had no idea how. In the spring of 2011 a fellow teacher convinced me to apply to a Research Experience for Teachers program through MSU’s College of Engineering, although I thought there was no way I would actually be able to participate while working on my master’s thesis on evolution education. When I met with the program director, Andrew Kim, he told me that I might be interested in working on a project involving digital evolution. I had no idea what that meant, but the integration of biology with computer science and engineering seemed very interesting and exciting, and of course, I ended up working with BEACON members. That summer I absorbed all that I could by hanging around multiple group’s lab meetings (thank you!) and going to seminars. I used what I learned to translate BEACON’s mission for Bio/Computational Evolution in Action into engaging learning experiences for my high school biology students. In addition to developing a bacterial selection experiment, I worked with Rob Pennock, Louise Mead, and Jim Smith to develop curriculum using Avida-ED digital evolution software. The learning gains (and excitement!) that my students demonstrated were very encouraging, and the next summer I was back for more – this time working with Phil McKinley, Brian Connelly, and Eric Bruger using computational and biological models to study evolutionary questions about quorum sensing.

Explaining evolved robot behavior at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC in May 2014.

Explaining evolved robot behavior at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC in May 2014.

These experiences encouraged me to begin doctoral study. I decided that in collaboration with the BEACON Center I could be as interdisciplinary as I wanted, no matter what type of doctoral program I chose. In 2013 I started a science education program in the College of Education and joined the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior Program. Through these programs and BEACON I am able to simultaneously pursue all of my interests and integrate them with the aim of transforming science education and increasing public understanding of science.

I currently work with Rob Pennock on two BEACON affiliated projects: Avida-ED curriculum development and the Scientific Virtues Project. Though they seem quite different, I see a very important connection (aside from the fact that both are really fascinating). In the Scientific Virtues Project I interview scientists about the values (curiosity, objectivity, humility to evidence, etc.) that they bring to their work. Understanding these values is important from the perspective of philosophy and sociology of science, but it is also vital for transforming science education to better reflect the goals and practices of scientists.

Avida-ED is a perfect example of a teaching tool that engages students in the practices of science as called for by recent reform efforts such as Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology and the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 education. Not only can students develop and test their own hypotheses about evolutionary processes in Avida-ED, but they can actually watch processes such as random mutation, genetic drift, and selection acting on digital organisms in real time. Previous work in my own classroom as well as a larger national study conducted by Amy Lark demonstrated that the use of Avida-ED significantly improves students’ understanding of basic evolutionary processes. Currently the Avida-ED team is comparing student learning in undergraduate courses that use Avida-ED versus those that do not. Preliminary analysis has documented higher learning gains for students that use Avida-ED. Working with the program seems to be especially helpful for students in overcoming the common misconception that evolution is intentional or directed as well as helping them to appreciate the importance of random mutation in basic evolutionary processes. 

In addition to my BEACON work, I also teach courses for preservice teachers and work on the Carbon TIME curriculum and research project with Andy Anderson in the Department of Teacher Education. My work on Avida-ED and the Scientific Virtues Project both informs and is enhanced by my work in teacher education. For example, I am currently analyzing videos of teachers implementing the Carbon TIME curriculum to determine whether teachers’ orientation towards curiosity influences their students’ learning. This question was inspired by interviews with scientists who continually emphasize the important role of curiosity in guiding their work. It seems quite logical that science teaching that fosters curiosity would improve student learning, and my preliminary analysis are suggesting that it is indeed an important factor.

My own natural curiosity has fueled my interest in evolution, but it is also a natural fit with my goals of improving science education and public understanding of science. The study of evolution is a perfect example of the scientific process at its best as well as an ideal context for highlighting the relationships among science, technology, and society. I am thrilled to be a part of BEACON’s mission of “illuminating and harnessing the power of evolution in action to advance science and technology and benefit society.”

For more information about Wendy’s work, you can contact her at john3062 at msu dot edu.

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