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Evergreen Researcher Advancing Science Education

Evergreen Researcher Advancing Science Education by Working Toward Deeper Exploration of How Students Best Learn Biology

Clarissa Dirks to Share with the American Association for the Advancement of Science What Cognitive and Science Education Research Says about Helping the Nation’s Students Learn

An undergraduate science course may be among the few places where students will gain exposure to the sciences that are changing the shape of society today. Evergreen professor Clarissa Dirks, and her collaborators, are working to ensure that students around the nation are better prepared to learn from those courses. Part of a national effort supported by The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The National Academies, Dirks is working with colleagues around the nation to examine methods for engaging students in the biological sciences, helping them gain deep and context-rich knowledge of their subject.

Next Sunday, Dirks and colleagues will be presenting their work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC. The title of their presentation: “Moving (Actively) from Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education.” “We are definitely putting Evergreen on the map because of the research we are doing and by hosting professional development workshops for faculty across the nation,” says Dirks. “The focus is to teach scientists how to better teach science.” According to Dirks and her colleagues, research shows that science faculty need to use active learning in the classroom and administer high cognitive level exams that assess students’ science process and reasoning skills.

“We are aiming to go beyond multiple choice exams based on simple recall,” says Dirks. “Exams often drive student learning, so they should reflect the process of science and require students to analyze data, pose hypotheses, or design experiments with the content they are learning.”

And, active learning in the classroom happens when students practice working with the material in ways similar to how they will be tested. This is in contrast to traditional educational methods where the professor is lecturing and the students passively listen. The end goal: ensuring students retain information beyond test day and carry it forward usefully into their careers and lives.

According to Dirks, being invited to give a 3-hour hands-on workshop on educational research topics at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting is fairly unprecedented. It is a unique opportunity to share a researched, evidence-based approach with policy makers and educators across the country who are interested in improving science education.

Leaders in science education, business, and government have long recognized the increasing gap between the demand for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) talent and the number of U.S. students interested in and prepared for pursuing degrees and careers in STEM-related fields. Fortunately, postsecondary education offers considerable untapped potential to help meet the nation’s needs for greater STEM capacity and expertise, and best practices in science education can help to better leverage this talent.

Dirks presentation draws upon work from an ongoing series of Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education taking place in locations around the country and supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Academies. These institutes help train science faculty to use best practices in science teaching based on research from cognitive and learning sciences. Evergreen last hosted one of these institutes in September, 2011, and is set to host another summer institute in 2012.

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About Clarissa Dirks

Clarissa Dirks hosted the regional National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Science Education at Evergreen in early September, part of a series of summer institutes funded with a $200,000 five-year grant by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Most of the 48 participants were faculty from institutions on the West Coast of the U.S.; the rest were postdocs, graduate students, and a few Evergreen undergraduates applying for the Masters in Teaching program. Each year, Dirks also co-organizes and leads a workshop for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Faculty Institute for Reforming Science Teaching IV, a program that trains and mentors postdocs from around the country in best practices in teaching science. With additional funding from NSF, she co-founded and organized the first meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research held at the University of Minnesota. More than 300 attendees presented their research. Based on her role as a National Academies Committee Member for Dual Use Education, and with funding from the U.S. Dept. of State, Dirks helped run a training workshop in Trieste, Italy for faculty from over 15 countries. These faculty will conduct workshops in their home countries to train science faculty to better mentor and disseminate issues around Dual Use Research. In June Clarissa received a $147,574 NSF grant to develop a science process and reasoning skills test.


Jason Wettstein Media & Community Relations Manager
The Evergreen State College
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