Observing the ConnectedBio classroom from a research perspective

Rebecca Ellis is a postdoctoral researcher who earned her Ph.D. in curriculum, instruction, and teacher education at Michigan State University. So why does she get “carded” every time she goes into a high school to conduct research? “A teacher asked me once if I’d like to sign up for driver’s ed.” She understands that she looks young, “but 15?” she exclaims. (She’s 31.)

Rebecca Ellis

However, looking closer in age to the students rather than their parents has helped her establish an easy rapport in the classroom while researching student interactions for Connected Biology, a project that helps students connect genetic and evolutionary phenomena. “You never really know what students are going to do when suddenly an adult comes in and sits down with a notebook,” she laughs.

This fall Ellis observed classrooms in Leominster, Massachusetts, and Oakland, California, that were using the ConnectedBio curriculum. Funded by the National Science Foundation, ConnectedBio uses multi-level simulations, developed by the Concord Consortium, and a curriculum based on Michigan State University’s Evo-Ed evolution education project, to examine a real-world case study of the deer mouse.

“There are many phenomena that we understand are brought about by evolution,” explains Frieda Reichsman, senior scientist and Co-PI of the ConnectedBio project. Following the complete mechanism of how change occurs in a specific species, such as the deer mouse, from the smallest protein to visible results, creates a coherent evolutionary “story” that students can understand and trust.

Five units in the ConnectedBio project will be tested as standalone units that can be completed sequentially or as units woven into a standard biology curriculum. Ellis is currently observing classrooms pilot testing the first unit. She’s collecting qualitative data and limited quantitative data on how students use the simulations and how they interact with other students and the teacher, and assessing the effectiveness of the units. Her data consists of observations to determine students’ level of engagement, interviews to understand student thinking in greater depth, survey questions to help assess students’ experiences using technology or other methods for learning biology, a review of students’ written responses to questions, and eventually coding of recorded group discussions at the end of the unit to assess students’ ability to make connections between levels and units.

“The big picture is the student experience,” she explains. “I’m looking for things like, are students staying on task, are they helping each other out when they get stuck or asking each other questions, what sorts of answers are they giving, what are they thinking when they give these answers. We’re building a profile of what they understand and how are they engaged.”

Her preliminary observations showed the effectiveness of lessons in both a ninth grade biology class and an AP biology class. “That shows the project’s versatility,” she explains. “Students are able to access the content at their own level.” In the Massachusetts classrooms she also observed the students doing a remarkable job helping each other when they got stuck. “I was impressed at how quickly these students, when they didn’t know the answer, instead of just raising their hand or just stopping, they would ask their neighbor.”

As she moves around the room recording observations, Ellis makes sure the students understand that she is not there to judge whether their answers are right or wrong. “I try to position the students as experts. They’re the ones who know what’s going on. They know what they’re thinking. I’m just here wanting to know what they know.” This allows the students to feel comfortable being themselves, and showing her what it’s like to be a student completing these lessons and activities.

The results from this research will be turned into an analysis of student understanding and engagement when learning in this fashion, which could guide future teachers and curriculum writers as they decide to teach and develop lessons in these new ways. ConnectedBio is not an efficacy study, but the research portion aims to demonstrate how students are learning and engaging in science using these new and exciting materials. The research data also will be used to improve the simulations and activities of additional ConnectedBio units that demonstrate the remarkable story of biology.