BEACON Researchers at Work: A Developing Science Teacher – Research, Theory, and Application

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU undergraduate Lazarius Miller.

LazariusTeaching has been a dream of mine since I was a small child. I am a native of Detroit Michigan as well as a proud alumnus of Detroit Public Schools. I am interested in teaching science in urban school systems, which has a very diverse student population as well as resemble the education system that I came from. My hope is to develop curriculum that is focused on evolutionary science, so that diverse learners have the opportunity to understand more about themselves and the world in which they live, like I have been able to do.

When I was younger, my mom jokingly told me that I had been a monkey previously. She pointed to my tailbone and told me that I use to have a tail and that it fell off one day. I figured my mom was just joking, but it did pique an interest in how could I have been a monkey. When in middle and high school, I was told that evolution was not true and that I should not believe in something like that. I never thought much of evolution in high school, because we did not get a chance to talk about it in my biology class. My interest was piqued again during my freshman year at Michigan State University. The summer after my freshman year was completed, I worked with Dr. Louise Mead in the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action on a project entitled “Does Religion and Education Background affect Student Perceptions of Evolution.” This project had opened my eyes to teaching and learning that I did not truly understand. The project looked at how religion affected student perceptions of evolution using education background as another measuring factor, influenced a student’s desire to pursue a science career. As an aspiring middle/high school science teacher, this topic was important because the ages 13-17 seem to be very influential ages where individuality and independence start to develop. This age also seems like a time in which students begin to show rebellious behavior towards their guardians, but the beliefs that have been instilled in them have not had a chance to modify completely.

The original sample of students surveyed was invitees of a summer enrichment camp for high school achievers. The group of 29 students was from different grades, hometowns, school locations and types, as well as had taken a difference in science course difficulty. Racial background was not included in the study, but I did read a whitepaper by Dr. Joseph Graves, Dr. Louise Mead, and Dr. Judi Brown Clarke on African Americans in Evolutionary Science. The paper talked about how many people of color, primarily African Americans, are extremely religious, possibly due to the reliance of “God” during slavery, and any deviation from religion would not be received well. 

My original hypothesis was that the students would have a high religiosity and their attitude towards evolution would be negative. That was not the result. The students generally had a more positive attitude toward religion and studying science. I tried to figure out why the results turned out the way they did and then I remembered that these students were invited for their academic performance in science and math in high school, so they were probably more accepting of scientific phenomenon than non-science students. I wanted to test another group of students and compare results, but I also started to get interested in curriculum and if all students were getting equal access to proper scientific instruction and materials. 

The next summer, Summer 2014, I studied and researched at the Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, MI. There I took an ecology lecture and lab course that was more practical and applied. One of our assignments was to write a blog post about an ecological or biological concept that we found interesting. I immediately thought about my research project the previous summer and decided that I would talk about that. The initial article did not work out because it was focused too much on the social side of the study, but I wanted to find a way to explain evolution to someone who had professed disbelief. I instantly recalled a conversation with my aunt who happens to be a minister in a Baptist church. I used the concept of sin to explain to her how evolution works. I explained that sin would continue to grow and develop until an outside stimulus threatens the survival of sin. Our conversation was a bit longer, but she told me that she understood evolution better than she did before. I decided to write about something that many people would relate to and I chose to talk about the evolution of iPhones. In this article, I created an iPhone phylogeny that detailed some of the major changes in appearance (phenotype) and operating systems (genotype). At the time the newest iPhones out were the iPhone 5c and 5s. I also stated in the article that based on the phylogeny, we would have an iPhone 6c and 6s.

In December 2014, I got the opportunity to go back to my high school to speak with the AP Biology students about evolution, mainly trying to interest them in science. These students in this class were freshmen when I was a senior in high school; so some of them were familiar with me, which probably made the reception a bit easier to see familiar faces. My initial thoughts about this visit was that it was going to be tough because my school is primarily students of color and their ties to their religious beliefs would be strong and some may not entertain the thought of the evolution. As the day got closer to my presentation, I decided to develop a website that the students could access on their phones to take 3 short surveys, as well as a short presentation on evolution. I also provided my blog post on the evolution if iPhones for them to read over, hopefully to open their minds to the process of evolution before I stated talking about dichotomies and relatedness of unfamiliar organism.

As the hour started, I was excited to share my experiences and hope to spark an interest in other future scientists. Before I was introduced, I heard two students talking about me. One young man suggested I was a former student; another disagreed with him. Another girl waived to me and said that she remembered me. I introduced myself and started the presentation. Everything was going well, I had the students take the pre-survey then I explained a couple of results from my research project, and finally I distributed the articles. I had the students read them before the phylogeny presentation. Some students had questions during the presentation that seemed to be thought out and not just disagreement. I observed the students faces across the classroom. Some were engaged, others were disengaged, and I could not tell about the others. The dialogue at the end of the presentation consisted of students expressing that they were conflicted, some were interested, and others were silent.

In reflection of my visit, I realized that if I had a little bit more time with the students I would be able to gage how interested they were as well as I would be able to answer underlying questions about evolution. This visit proved to be very important for me because I was able to use the knowledge I gained working with BEACON and a couple of classroom management skills from my Teacher Education classes at MSU, to talk with a group of high school students about a subject that I had not had an opportunity to learn about in my high school classroom. Education in the present is comprised of so many more components than I realized before and it is essential to meet students where they are and provide them with the skills to reach the next level.

For more information about Lazarius’ work, you can contact him at mill2321 at msu dot edu.

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