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NSF Grant for Research On Teaching of Biology

With the explosion of biological knowledge over the last few decades, general biology textbooks have grown into huge tomes. Tens of thousands of college and university students nationwide take introductory biology each year, and the professors teaching these courses feel pressed to teach more and more information.

“With all this emphasis on memorization and content, there is little time to help students learn how to think and reason,” said Charlene D’Avanzo, professor of ecology at Hampshire College.

Dr. D’Avanzo and two co-researchers have been awarded a $132,962 grant through the National Science Foundation’s curriculum development program to investigate college students’ grasp of basic biological concepts. Their research will target two challenges: that most students do not use the principles and reasoning applied by biologists in approaching questions about biology; and that many faculty do not teach students how to apply these principles.

She will work with Alan Griffith, an assistant professor of plant ecology at the University of Mary Washington, and Charles W. Anderson, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, whose research centers on the classroom teaching and learning of science. They will partner with the Ecological Society of America, a nonprofit organization that promotes ecological science and the appropriate use of ecological understanding in environmental decision-making.

“I am most interested in helping faculty figure out how to teach differently once they better understand their students’ misconceptions and poor reasoning,” said D’Avanzo.

The grant is for calendar year 2008 and will make it possible to design a concept inventory that will uncover the strengths and weaknesses of students’ biological reasoning. Using that information, teaching faculty can better teach by targeting weaknesses in the way that students reason. In the faculty development portion of the project, faculty from a range of institutions will work in teams and use the information as the basis for changing how they teach general biology.

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