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NSF Grant Awarded to Biology Professor

Sara Wyse, associate professor of biology, will be researching student learning through the use of models.

Assistant Professor of Biology Sara Wyse has been awarded a three-year, $67,309 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for research on the collaborative project "From the learner's perspective: Unpacking the why and how of model-based learning about biological systems." Wyse ’05 is Bethel’s fourth current NSF grant recipient in the College of Arts & Sciences.

This research and its team span several institutions: North Dakota State University, Michigan State University, Saint Louis University, and Bethel University. This wide scope of study across public and private schools, varying class sizes, and range of student academic achievement will provide great sampling. The project will focus on the use of visual models or diagrams and their construction by students during the process of learning topics in biology. By understanding the steps students take to build the visual models, they hope to discover more effective ways of teaching introductory biology and assessing student learning.

Wyse and her research team were colleagues at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, and have already done studies on the use of modeling. Their previous research examined whether the use of models was a useful tool for student learning and assessing student learning. The results were clear that models were incredibly effective. “We found that it was particularly helpful for students ranking lower on the achievement scale at the beginning of the semester. By the end, we saw the achievement gap closing on model-based assessments for these students. It showed us how effective the process of modeling can be for student learning. Now we want to know why.”

The previous research only allowed Wyse and her colleagues to see the end result of a model developed by a student. “Now we want to go a step further,” Wyse explains. “We hope to better understand how students process the relationships between components of a model and in what contexts modeling serves to promote students' learning about biological systems. We want to know how students construct models, and what decisions they are making as they create a model (e.g., where they start to construct a model and when they decided that it is done). We are curious as to how these decisions and a chosen pathway to building a model differ among various student populations, and how students use their models to make predictions about systems.”

Grant funding provides for electronic pens for students to use while they diagram their models. The pen records every mark made and will be downloadable information. Wyse and her colleagues will be able to view the exact developments of the models done by each student. “This research will allow us to see each step a student takes in creating a model; which items and relationships come first for students,” says Wyse.

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