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Professor Receives NSF Grant to Continue Efforts to Better “the Student Learning Experience”

With a new National Science Foundation Grant, Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse ’05 and her collaborators are aiming to help young science students think and reason with complex systems in biology.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

October 19, 2020 | 10:30 a.m.

Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse ’05

Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse ’05

As Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse ’05 continues her years-long study into the benefits of model-based learning and how it equips science students to better understand and reason with complex systems, she doesn’t have to look far to see proof that this work is important. “If anything, this COVID crisis that our entire globe is facing is really giving strong evidence to the fact that we need students who are capable problem-solvers and who can reason about complexity and who can understand how a piece of data can lead us to draw certain conclusions and how the process of science actually works to revise those conclusions once more data are available,” she says.

Wyse is part of a team that received a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $104,468 for the project “Connecting Undergraduate Biology Through Systems and Systems Thinking.” This will be the fourth collaborative project with this group of researchers—the third that Wyse is a part of dating back to her time as a graduate student in 2008. Wyse recently finished a collaborative research project called "From the Learner's Perspective: Unpacking the Why and How of Model-Based Learning About Biological Systems” through a prior NSF grant. But there’s more work to be done to focus on how students develop their scientific thinking. “The thing that drives me in answering and asking these questions is ultimately about bettering the student learning experience,” Wyse says.

“The thing that drives me in answering and asking these questions is ultimately about bettering the student learning experience."

— Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse ’05

Through model-based learning, students use scientific models as a way to think about and reason with systems—and to think about how complex systems interact and change. Past research found that model-based learning around systems—and by building models over and over—helps close the achievement gap as B- and C-level students move closer to the A-level students. But Wyse says they’ve found that while systems-thinking is intuitive to researchers and scientists and top-level students, it’s often something that is more “caught than taught.” That highlights the need to spend time teaching students how to make sense of complex systems.

Such systems thinking engages students beyond their capacity for recall, promoting higher-level thinking and the integration of concepts. “As an educator, not only can I help my students really understand the concept that they’re working to learn, but I can also help them gain the skills to think and reason about the concept. Then they’re going to be that much more successful,” Wyse says, adding they’ll be able to make a bigger impact in their workplace and help solve problems that need to be solved.

During this next grant, the team plans to collaborate with K-12 educators by providing them with assessments and templates that teachers can adjust to fit their own course material to help students process these concepts at an appropriate level. Wyse is working with Associate Professor of Education Steve Bennett, who will help serve as a bridge into K-12 classrooms. Wyse is excited that teachers will be able to fit their curriculum into the templates instead of giving them textbook-style assistance. “They are generators of their own materials for their students,” she says, which will create more buy-in by teachers and students. The initial study could lead to many subsequent research questions. “Nobody is looking at how this unfolds, how the teaching of systems thinking skills is applied in the elementary and middle school, high school classrooms and even in the college classroom,” Wyse says.

Such efforts could help shape young learners and have wide-reaching effects as research shows that students decide at a young age whether science is for him or her. “So the earlier we can get excellent science teachers that involve not only content but science process skills in the classroom, the better because students are going to learn and get excited about science in a different way,” Wyse says. She notes this also presents opportunities to help Bethel build community connections.

Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse '05 talks about her passion for discovery and some of the big questions she poses to her students in the classes she teaches.

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