Helping students learn to think like scientists

  • Jul 29, 2016
  • Faculty & Staff, Research, Students, Plant Biology

Tammy Long (left) and Lars Brudvig

MSU's Tammy Long (left) and Lars Brudvig are working to build a version of intro biology that looks more like what science actually is.

Many students enter college with aspirations of being scientists, only to become disillusioned with their first-year science courses. But Lars Brudvig and Tammy Long are aspiring to change that.

The two plant biologists teach BioSci 162 – Organisms and Populations, the second course in the introductory biology sequence. The course, which focuses on genetics, ecology and evolution, is a requirement for science majors.

“What we’re trying to do with these large, introductory biology classes is address a problem that’s been identified nationally—which is, a lot of students come to college with aspirations of being scientists, and those first-year courses are often dream-busters for them,” said Long, an assistant professor whose work focuses on discipline-based education research.

Long, who came to MSU as a postdoctoral researcher in 2000 after earning her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan, translates research findings and theory into classroom practice in how people learn STEM concepts.

“Our research is on better understanding how students learn to think about biological systems,” she explained. “These intro courses are sometimes not what students expect. They’re often not reflective of what science is, so students struggle—and often make decisions to leave science. We’re aiming to build a version of intro biology that looks more like what science actually is. We want students to start thinking like scientists.”

“We’ve taken this traditionally lecture-driven course and changed it so the students work actively in small groups and focus first on the ‘big ideas,’ the big structuring concepts in biology,” said Brudvig, an associate professor who earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at Iowa State University and came to MSU in 2010. “We then focus on scientific practices—such as developing hypotheses, evaluating scientific claims with evidence or data, interpreting and graphing data, and then using that to make an argument and test the hypotheses.”  

He plans to use a five-year NSF CAREER Award grant to develop a new unit—focusing on conservation, biology and restoration ecology—for the course.

“We need to understand how humans impact ecosystems and then, in turn, figure out how we can benefit ecosystems through this process called ecological restoration—rehabilitating ecosystems that have been damaged by human activities,” Brudvig said.

“We are preparing students to handle the complexities of biological science, in their careers—which could focus on research, policy, conservation, health care or a variety of other lines of work—or as citizens, parents and voters,” Long added.

“And what can we arm them with? Transferable tools, such as the ability to think through a problem, formulate a question, address a hypothesis, critically evaluate evidence and make evidence-driven decisions. To work through the scientific literature and evaluate where consensus lies or where uncertainly lies. These are skills that individuals in all kinds of careers can use,” Brudvig said.

“I’ve had some students say they didn’t feel like they were cut out for science,” Long said. “But after having a chance to learn through these different approaches, they’ve become more interested in science and they end up staying in the field.”

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