STEM educator Greg Crowther | David Aarons
The University of Washington’s Biology 220 course serves hundreds of students in a massive lecture-hall setting, but a related science-writing course—enhanced by Science in the Classroom resources—helped a subset of those participants better understand core concepts, educator Greg Crowther reported.
By analyzing, annotating, and reviewing two Science papers as part of a Science in the Classroom (SiTC) exercise, Crowther’s students also improved their scientific vocabulary and critical-thinking skills. For their contributions to the growing SiTC stockpile of study materials, they will all get bylines on the Science website, too.
“Working on the Science in the Classroom project was a great opportunity for meta-cognition by the students in my science-writing course,” said Crowther, a faculty member at UW as well as South Seattle College. “It encouraged them to think about how they learn most effectively. With their homework, they had to answer questions like, `How did this aid your understanding of the paper, or not?’ They were prompted to think about how they approach learning, and going forward, that will help them in all of their courses.”
Science in the Classroom, launched in October 2013 with support from the National Science Foundation, was “designed to help demystify how scientists build a basis for understanding the world,” according to Bruce Alberts and Marcia McNutt, the journal’s former and current editor-in-chief, respectively. The freely available site, still under development with the help of a high-level advisory team, features specially developed learning exercises and Science research articles annotated by student volunteers.
As an example, a 10 May 2013 paper on neural plasticity was annotated by volunteer Stephanie Redmond, who also wrote questions prompting students to consider how the environment influences behavior, the benefit of using twins in a genetic study, and more. Redmond, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), was able to work directly with Andreas Brandmaier, a co-author on the paper. He created an online game that lets SiTC users test their “roaming entropy”—a measure of curiosity, or exploratory behavior, which Julia Freund, Gerd Kempermann, and colleagues had correlated with the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus of laboratory mice.
Each SiTC exercise also includes a synopsis of the Science study, broken down into five essential components, so that students who may not be familiar with all of the paper’s terminology can still understand the study’s main question, hypothesis, experiment, results, and conclusions. And, free links to related news and policy articles in Science provide explanation and context.
New content is now being posted twice a month to the SiTC site, on the second and fourth Thursdays at 2:00 pm Eastern time.
Student Volunteer Stephanie Redmond
Redmond, who had previously been involved in a UCSF program that pairs graduate students with public-school science classes, said that she enjoyed both learning about Freund’s research in depth, and helping to make science more accessible. “I want to take away some of the fear and stigma that surrounds learning science,” Redmond said when asked why she had donated her time to the SiTC project. “As a teaching assistant, I realized that helping people look at things in a slightly different way can allow them to get it. It doesn’t have to be scary. Especially in high school and the early college years, people get turned off to science for no good reason!”
The SiTC resources can help high-school, community college, and university students more readily connect with complex scientific information, Redmond said.
SiTC advisory board member Sharon Lee-Bond agreed. A faculty member at Northampton Community College, Lee-Bond said that SiTC resources can be useful for students as well as educators—whether or not they have had experience in a research laboratory. “The level of detail and terminology in a scientific article can overwhelm students, but if you build that information into a classroom activity, then the authors’ methods and findings can be more accessible,” she said. “They can also begin to understand things like why we do lab reports, and why we need to think through the design of an experiment before we jump right in.”
The SitC resources, coupled with its Science Education Portal—a collection of freely available education content published by Science—“offers various types of scientific writing for community-college students and others to read and discuss as they explore their career interests in the sciences, mathematics, and related technologies,” Lee-Bond added.
Helping students achieve that broader awareness of the scientific process is a key benefit of using the SiTC resources, Crowther noted. “One of the general themes I try to impart in all of my teaching is, `Here’s how the process works,’ as opposed to, `Here are the facts of the science,’” he explained. The Science materials make it possible to introduce such concepts to students in settings such as community colleges, where large, intricate laboratory experiments may be cost-prohibitive, he added.
Advisory Board Member Sharon Lee-Bond
Crowther’s students broadened their knowledge of experimental design, science-writing, and terminology by studying two SiTC papers on a gene that directs leaf shapes in the Brassicaceae family of plants, and the mechanism that triggers flowering in one member of that plant family (Arabidopsis thaliana). Half of the class looked first at one paper, then the other, creating a glossary, reference annotations, and questions. They also peer-reviewed each other’s work, and wrote “mini-grant proposals” and reviews.
All that work helped students better understand their required plant-physiology curriculum, too, Crowther said: “One of the most fundamental principles of biology is that genes have both a coding region, which specifies a protein's amino acid sequence, and a regulatory region, which helps controls when and where that protein is made, in which cells, at what time. I don’t think the distinction always sinks in for students, based on lectures, but working with these actual research articles forced them to dive deeper into the concept.”
Implementing the SiTC approach allowed Crowther to objectively compare outcomes with other educational models, he said.
SiTC organizers, including Science Associate Editor Melissa McCartney and Senior Editor Pamela Hines, said that they are eager to recruit additional students and teachers to participate in the project. “Volunteering to help develop Science in the Classroom content is a great opportunity for students and post-docs to learn more about different fields, and to have a byline on the Science website,” Hines said. “For educators, it can be a great way to gather data on what works in the classroom.”