Researchers receive NSF funding to improve assessment of student learning in chemistry, biology

  • Nov 13, 2017
  • NSF, Faculty, STEM Education, teaching
  • Homepage News, Faculty & Staff, Research, Biochemistry, Chemistry

MSU's Rebecca Matz and Kristin Parent are heading up a two-year NSF grant that looks at how students apply their chemistry knowledge to biological situations.

Rebecca Matz (left), is leading a two-year National Science Foundation-funded project to create assessments that reveal students' abilities to apply their chemistry knowledge to biological situations. MSU colleague, Kristin Parent, (right) is co-principal investigator on the project. Photo by Harley Seeley.

As discoveries in biology increasingly occur at intersections with other disciplines, it’s important to measure how well students are able to connect information across those disciplines to address significant challenges in the world, such as improving human health and environmental sustainability.

Michigan State University (MSU) researcher Rebecca Matz is leading a two-year National Science Foundation-funded collaborative project with Florida International University (FIU) to create assessments that will reveal undergraduate students’ abilities to make these connections. The focus of the initiative is the interface of chemistry and biology, as chemical principles underscore many biological phenomena. MSU and FIU were awarded $147,410 and $150,495, respectively.

“This project will be most formative for instructors, because it will provide evidence about how students are currently able to apply their chemistry knowledge to biological situations,” said Matz, academic specialist in the MSU Hub for Innovation and Learning Technology and assistant professor with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Natural Science. “The goal is for instructors to take this evidence and ask how it aligns with their expectations for what students should be able to do with their chemistry knowledge in these courses.

“If evidence is not in alignment with instructors’ expectations, then we have identified an area for curriculum revision,” Matz added. “Development in those areas can ultimately improve student learning.”

The project, “Creating Assessments for Student Understanding of Core Chemistry Ideas in Introductory Biology,” will support the development of three-dimensional assessment items for introductory cell and molecular biology courses at both universities. Three-dimensional assessment items incorporate scientific practices, or how students apply their knowledge; cross-cutting concepts or common themes across disciplines; and core ideas, or foundational disciplinary concepts.

“Importantly, we are going to create these items so that they draw on core chemistry ideas,” Matz said.

Co-principal investigator Kristin Parent, MSU assistant professor in the NatSci Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, brings a wealth of biochemistry expertise to the project. She teaches the project’s focus introductory course, which has students engaging in argument and analyzing and interpreting data; applying crosscutting concepts, such as energy and matter; and using core chemistry ideas, such as bonding and interactions.

Matz has a mixed background in chemistry and biology, having worked during graduate school in an interdisciplinary group that focused on applying polymers to cells for the purposes of gene delivery.

“I learned a lot of fundamental biology and became much more interested in biology through that work,” said Matz, now a discipline-based education researcher.

During the project’s first year, assessment items will be drafted and students will be asked to complete those items during interviews to assess the validity of the items. In the second year, the assessment items will be put to the test in classrooms.

This research will produce a set of reliable and validated items, including scoring rubrics that probe three-dimensional learning at the interface of chemistry and biology, and documentation of a process for creating three-dimensional items about interdisciplinary ideas.

“This work is significant because the developed items will serve as tools to better help researchers and instructors understand how students do or do not connect their chemistry and biology knowledge, which is imperative for explaining scientific phenomena,” Matz said.

Banner image by Harley Seeley.