Electron Location, Location, Location: Understanding Biological Interactions

Introductory Biology courses typically introduce the structure and function of biomolecules such as proteins and nucleic acids. To understand biomolecules fully, students require knowledge of fundamental chemistry concepts such as covalent bonding, intermolecular interactions and hydrophilicity/hydrophobicity (1). Students enter our large (>400 student) course with a notoriously limited conceptual grasp of basic chemistry principles. Our lesson is an activity designed on the principles of POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning). In 50 minutes, students build their own definitions of the following: polar vs. non-polar covalent bonds, hydrophilicity/hydrophobicity and the nature of hydrogen bonding based simply on the relative electronegativities of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen. We find that this exercise improves students’ understanding of these chemical concepts. Since adopting this activity, students have been better able to understand biomolecular structures and predict interactions between molecules.

Primary image: Hydrogen Bond. Possible hydrogen bond interaction that can form between two simple organic molecules.

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A How to Guide and Template for Designing a Puzzle Based Escape Room Game

Educational games are one active and effective way of engaging students with material while also providing additional motivation to tackle challenging concepts. A particularly popular game concept is the escape room, where students need to work in groups to solve a series of puzzles to prevent disaster from occurring in an imaginary universe, all within a specified amount of time. This paper presents a general guide to constructing an escape room for undergraduate classrooms. Unlike many recently published educational escape rooms, this template does not use any laboratory-based components, making it widely applicable to any class and any level, although it will be most easily adapted to classes that do include analytical components. The puzzles in the game escalate from remembering and understanding concepts to applying and evaluating techniques and data. Unlike many other games and puzzles, an escape room does not reveal the final answers until the allocated time is up, which forces students to work through challenging questions and find solutions within their group to advance in the game. The game provides students many instances for formative assessment and encourages helpful discussions surrounding misconceptions and core course content while they escalate through the challenges.

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A Classroom Intervention to Reduce Confirmation Bias

STEM students are often unable to recognize cognitive bias in their own disciplines, and simply describing cognitive bias to students has shown to be insufficient to improve critical thinking. However, habitual metacognitive techniques show promise for correcting cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, a maladaptive cognitive strategy that specifically threatens the objectivity of scientists. As part of a course on metacognition in science, first-year STEM students were asked to give an oral presentation about a controversial socioscientific topic (e.g., GMO crops, de-extinction, or hydrofracking). The first year the course was offered, presentations exhibited confirmation bias at a high rate, despite instructions to examine multiple viewpoints about the scientific issue. In subsequent years, an intervention in the form of an interactive lecture/discussion/activity about confirmation bias and two specifically-designed homework assignments asked the students to reflect on evidence, search processes and potential biases. This intervention was jointly developed by faculty members in biology and philosophy to focus on habitual metacognitive techniques. Compared to no intervention, the resultant presentations had a higher percentage of reliable sources and a lower percentage of citations that only supported their conclusion. These results indicate that after the intervention exercise, students were discriminating among sources more carefully (Mann-Whitney p=0.009) and were using more sources from the other side of the argument, including presenting more reasons that refute their own ideas (Mann-Whitney p=0.003). We find that providing classroom instruction supported by deliberate practice to counteract confirmation bias improves students’ evaluation of scientific evidence.

Primary image: Venn diagram that illustrates the idea of confirmation bias.

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Knowing your own: A classroom case study using the scientific method to investigate how birds learn to recognize their offspring

Understanding the scientific method provides students with a necessary foundation for careers in science-related fields. Moreover, students can apply scientific inquiry skills in many aspects of their daily lives and decision making. Thus, the ability to apply the scientific method represents an essential skill that students should learn during undergraduate science education. We designed an interrupted case study in which students learn about and apply the scientific method to investigate and recapitulate the findings of a published research article. This research article addresses the question of how parents recognize their own young in a system where birds of the same species lay eggs in each other's nests. The researchers approach the question through three experiments in which the bird's own offspring and unrelated offspring hatch in different orders. This experiment specifically tests for the effect of hatching order on the bird's ability to recognize its own offspring. In the case study, students form hypotheses based on behavioral observations made while watching a video clip, together with background information provided by the instructor. With additional information about the experimental design, students make graphical predictions for the three related experiments, compare their predictions to the results, and draw conclusions based on evidence. This lesson is designed for introductory undergraduate students, and we provide suggestions on how to adjust the lesson for more advanced students. This case study helps students differentiate between hypotheses and predictions, introduces them to constructing and interpreting graphs, and provides a clear example of the scientific method in action.

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The 4-Minute Summary: Helping students recall, recap and explain the big picture... and much more!

Actively engaging students during a lecture class can come through many formats.  The 4-Minute Summary is a versatile pedagogy that can be readily applied to any class format (e.g., traditional, flipped), any class size, and any content.  Students benefit by engaging with peers while at the same time recapping and recalling content in their own words.     

The 4-Minute Summary allows students to

  1. engage with peers,
  2. engage with content,
  3. recap/recall content in their own words,
  4. practice speaking the content and
  5. provide a venue for questions to be answered. 

Luckily, students also enjoy using 4-Minute Summaries as a way to check their understanding while interacting with their peers.    

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Gotcha! Which fly trap is the best? An introduction to experimental data collection and analysis

Collecting data from experimental observations is an important component of the scientific process; likewise, the analysis of the data is essential to understanding the observed trends and patterns from any experiment. Allowing students to practice data collection and analysis is valuable to their scientific literacy and capacity. In this paper, we present a fly trap experiment that gives students the opportunity to discover which combinations of baits and trap types yield the best fly traps. Baits and traps can be made from easily available household goods, allowing this experiment to be set up with minimal preparation and at low cost. Students, individually or in small groups, set up their specific trap and bait combinations and the instructor collects them and places them in an area with flies. After a period of time, the instructor returns the traps to students who count the numbers of trapped flies. With these data, students summarize the results and evaluate the success of different combinations of trap type and baits. The experiment requires one session to construct and set-up the traps and a second session to count the flies and analyze and interpret the data. The experiment is designed for undergraduate students and can be modified to fit students’ past experience with experimental design and statistical analysis.  

Accompanying article about online adaptation of this lesson: Online Adaptation to "Gotcha! Which fly trap is the best? An introduction to experimental data collection and analysis"

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Building student literacy and metacognition through reading science in the news

Ensuring students' science literacy is essential for preparation for study in science disciplines and is of critical importance given contemporary challenges in determining the legitimacy and accuracy of science in popular media. This lesson describes the effectiveness of an undergraduate biology course designed to improve students' scientific literacy through meaningful engagement with science news sources. Students were surveyed at the beginning and end of the course to determine their preferred science news sources. Though 45% of students reported not accessing any science news sources in their daily lives at the beginning of the term, 100% of students reported accessing science news at the end of the term. Backward design and Scientific Teaching ensured that assignments meaningfully related to course learning goals, and formative assessment allowed the instructor to track student metacognition regarding science news throughout the term. These findings highlight the value of incorporating science news into undergraduate science courses with meaningful effects for science engagement and literacy beyond the classroom.

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Are you learning R? Suggestions to help you as you learn.

Learning how to code and analyze data in R is an important skill. Olivia Tabares and the Ecological Forecasting Education Working Group created this resource to encourage individuals who are learning R. This infographic provides six suggestions for a mindset that will help you when learning R might get a bit frustrating.

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Applying UDL to Existing Materials

This activity supports instructors in revising materials to incorporate Universal Design for Learning checkpoints.

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Getting Started with Universal Design for Learning

Three resources for faculty interested in an introduction to Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

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STEM Inclusive Teaching Practices Webinar Series: Fixed vs Growth Mindset and Why the Biggest Challenge May be Faculty (Episode Seven)

This webinar will explore how faculty can teach with a growth mindset and identify some potential areas of fixed mindset that might prove to be obstacles for many students.

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Introduction to the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines

Two activities for introducing Universal Design for Learning to a faculty audience

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Mystery box puzzle for model based reasoning

This is a computer based problem solving activity that I use to engage introductory biology students with discussions about model based reasoning.

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What’s the DEAL – The Digital Encyclopedia of Ancient Life and Digital Atlas Apps

The Digital Encyclopedia of Ancient Life and Digital Atlas Apps -- identify fossils and explore diversity and history of life on earth.

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The Happy Blue Baby Hemoglobin

This case, about a specific mutant of hemoglobin, focuses on visualizing and understanding the molecular basis of why an infant turned blue soon after birth and how the cyanosis resolved.

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Nicholas' Story

This 3 part case on sickle cell disease focuses on visualizing and understanding the molecular basis of its cause, symptoms, complications, management, treatment, and possible cures.

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COVID-19: Molecular Basis of Infection

This case was written in Spring 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It focuses on understanding the structure and interaction of the SARS-Cov-2 viral spike protein that facilitates infection in human cells.

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Nicholas' Story

This 3 part case on sickle cell disease focuses on visualizing and understanding the molecular basis of its cause, symptoms, complications, management, treatment, and possible cures.

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