Beagle Investigations Return with Darwinian Data (BIRDD) is a rich collection of primary scientific data and supporting materials about the Galapagos Islands and Darwin's finches. BIRDD is a problem space providing a collection of introductory materials and data resources designed to support students as they reason about the evolutionary relationships between the species. 

The materials provided here are modified from the BIRDD Project which is published as part of the BioQUEST Library.

QUBES Project

The mission of the Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis (QUBES) project is to improve learning opportunities for all students enrolled in undergraduate biology courses by reflecting the centrality of quantitative approaches in modern biology [more info about QUBES]. One of the ways that QUBES promotes quantitative approaches is by partnering with existing projects and communities to facilitate the discovery and use of their materials [more info about partner projects].

An Introduction to Problem Spaces

The following materials provide a brief conceptual introduction to our idea of a problem space and how we think this approach to curriculum development can be used to promote innovative undergraduate teaching and learning. This curriculum model grew out of the BEDROCK Bioinformatics Education Project's efforts to support a national community of faculty who are interested in bringing bioinformatics tools and data resources into their biology courses.

A problem space is a way of organizing diverse kinds of resources to support student inquiry.

One of the most exciting things about bringing inquiry into the undergraduate biology curriculum is the opportunity to engage students in rich and realistic research experiences. The availability of a networked computational environment is make it possible for students to access rich research data and analysis tools. Additionally, the research community has placed a great deal of emphasis on publicly accessible databases and freely shared analysis tools. While this cooperative environment has clearly benefited the research community it can also play an influential role in undergraduate biology education.

The data and tools for students to engage in research-like learning experiences are out there and can generally be accessed by anyone with a modern personal computer and an internet connection. However, lowering the technical barriers to accessing information and software is not the same as dealing with the conceptual barriers to understanding the use of these resources in a biologically informed way. We have chosen to think about teaching and learning biology in the context of problem spaces to reflect some of the exciting possibilities and serious challenges that the flood of molecular data present for biology education.

The basis for this vision of how teachers and students might interact with web based curricular resources involves emphasizing the use of molecular data to address biological research questions. In contrast to a more traditional lab approach where the students may be asked to follow a highly structured series of procedures to confirm an experimental result, our view of biology education emphasizes the development and exploration of students' questions as they come to understand biological principles, analytical procedures, and the ways that inferences are made from the collection and analysis of data. This approach does not dismiss the importance of learning foundational biological knowledge and skills. In fact, background knowledge and skills are viewed as essential stepping stones to applying one's knowledge to address new problems. So often, in our experience, it is in the application of factual and procedural knowledge to research questions that we come to understand more deeply both that background knowledge and how scientific claims are developed and justified.

One key to engaging students with inquiry is to provide problems that are circumscribed, yet, not prescribed.
           - K. Greene

Goals for Problem Spaces:

  • Promote research-like inquiry into biological questions using bioinformatics tools and data resources.
  • Support a community of faculty who are interested in exploring opportunities to incorporate bioinformatics into their undergraduate courses.
  • Provide access to rich data resources and powerful analysis tools, in the context of their use in addressing various biological questions.

Characteristics of problem spaces:

  • Flexibility - by providing a collection of resources and ideas we hope that the problem spaces will be useful in diverse settings where students may have different backgrounds in biology, bioinformatics and quantitative skills.
  • Open ended - while problem spaces can be used in a variety of ways we hope that they will be used to promote the development and pursuit of students' own questions and support a classroom community of research.
  • Dynamic - we hope that problem spaces will develop and change over time as more people use them and add comments, resources, student work, or other materials.

Elements of problem spaces:

  • A brief introduction to an area of research, data set or applied biological problem
  • A collection of "open research questions" that might be addressed
  • Examples of handouts, assignments, and other curricular materials used by other faculty
  • Data and other research resources
  • References and links to background materials
  • Example of student work and other projects that explore the problem space

Like the problem spaces themselves, we hope that our characterization of problem spaces will evolve over time and respond to the needs and interests of biologists (both professionals and students) who use them. Please feel free to send comments/suggestions/ideas/etc. to Sam Donovan .