National Numeracy Network > QRurrent Events > Past Events > NSF Numeracy Projects Supporting QL in Education > NSF-Supported Project Profiles > Improving Quantitative Reasoning and Inquiry-Based Learning in the Undergraduate Biology Curriculum

Improving Quantitative Reasoning and Inquiry-Based Learning in the Undergraduate Biology Curriculum

Doreen J. Schroeder, Amy S. Verhoeven, Susan B. Chaplin
University of St. Thomas

Funding provided by NSF Grant Number DUE-0633017 (February 2007- January 2010)


The goal of this project is to promote intellectual development in undergraduate biology students by increasing the emphasis on quantitative reasoning and inquiry-based activities in the laboratory experience. We have introduced digital microscopy and systems for the quantitative analysis of gas exchange within the introductory laboratory curriculum at a small urban university (University of St. Thomas) and an urban community college with a very diverse student body (North Hennepin Community College) to improve performance of students in introductory and mid-level STEM courses.

Student success in STEM courses is correlated with science reasoning ability, which requires advanced intellectual development. Intellectual development can be facilitated using inquiry-based teaching, which incorporates exercises that encourage students to examine cause and effect relationships, make predictions, and evaluate responses. The digital microscopes and gas exchange systems allow students to collect data, analyze data, and make connections/decisions about organisms that was not possible in either institution previously. Additionally, students taking the mid-level courses are able to build on knowledge from their previous introductory course.

The cooperation between the two institutions will allow us to determine if implementing increased amounts of quantitative reasoning and small group work has a different effect on the student performance or attitudes towards STEM in two institutions with very different student demographies.

Project Goals

Our project has four specific goals:
  1. Integration of math and technology to promote higher order thinking skills; Higher levels of intellectual development are modeled in the inquiry-based lab, as students apply a procedure to a new situation, analyze the data, evaluate if it fits their understanding, and incorporate the new information to create a coherent whole.
  2. Improve and expand inquiry-based laboratories; Research in STEM learning has indicated that an inquiry-based approach to learning lead to greater student engagement, better retention of knowledge, and promotes a positive attitude toward science.
  3. Improvement in student understanding of biological diversity; We propose to improve student understanding of, appreciation for, and retention of information about biological diversity through laboratories that incorporate the utilization of digital microscopy and gas analysis.
  4. Promotion of cooperative learning and community building within laboratories; The use of both technologies will requires that pairs or small groups of students work together. By incorporating technologies that require cooperative work, we hope to facilitate the establishment of student learning groups early in their undergraduate learning experience.

Project Design/Elements

To implement the technologies, we have trained instructors, revised laboratory protocols, and developed/written new exercises. We are using the microscopes and gas exchange systems in four key areas:
1. Introductory biology course at St. Thomas
The digital microscopes are used to make observations and measurements of the diversity of organisms. For example, a chronic problem of getting students to understand basic differences between types of cells has been alleviated with the use of the digital microscopes. Students create a semester-long project called a Digital Lab Notebook, utilizing images captured with the microscopes. The gas exchange systems are used to measure metabolic rate of insects in various conditions and photosynthetic rate.
2. Mid-level plant biology course at St. Thomas
Students taking this course can build on their familiarity with the technology from the introductory course and do more advanced photosynthetic experiments and investigate detailed questions in plant micro-anatomy.
3. Introductory and mid-level biology courses at North Hennepin Community College
Courses at North Hennepin are just beginning to implement the microscopes and gas exchange systems.
4. Other areas of the curriculum at St. Thomas; Already the technologies have been implemented in a non-science majors course and a mid-level comparative anatomy course where students are able to design experiments and collect quantitative data.
The mid-level comparative anatomy course has used the digital microscopes to answer questions addressing differences in renal micro-anatomy in vertebrates adapted to various habitats. Non-science majors have also used the gas exchange systems to measure photosynthetic rate of plants raised in different environments.
Assessment of the efficacy of these changes are on-going and involve a number of instruments.

Evaluation and Assessment Strategies

A variety of assessment strategies are underway at St. Thomas. In the introductory biology course, we are in the process of comparing pre- and post-implementation final lab exam scores, pre- and post-implementation lab report scores for student-designed experiments, and attitudinal surveys given at the beginning and end of the course, combined with a science reasoning exam. The science reasoning exam is based on the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning. We have used the Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) instrument for one year pre-implementation and also post-implementation in the introductory biology course. The SALG instrument is adaptable to many courses and we use it to measure both student attitudes about courses and student confidence in their ability to answer questions and/or perform analyses. Our assessment is still in the beginning stages, but we have found that students report that their lab experience in small groups was the most important learning aid in the course.

Similar assessments have been implemented in the mid-level plant biology course: lab report scores and attitudinal surveys. Additionally, a requirement that students demonstrate quantitative reasoning, beyond mere presentation of statistics, has been added to the final laboratory project. Faculty at the community college partner are also working on assessment tools.

Products, Key Findings, Publications

Publications are planned after three years of the project.