Temple engineers recieve NSF grant to develop interactive high school biology curriculum

06/07/05

To help high-school students better understand and apply scientific methodologies to biology problems, the Intelligent Systems Application Center (ISAC) in Temple's College of Engineering has been awarded a three-year, $843,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to develop three intelligent, interactive, multimedia modules for use in high-school biology curriculums.

Building on the popularity of the CSI television programs, the Interactive Virtual Intelligent System for Scientific Inquiry in a Biology Learning Environment (INVISSIBLE) will involve students by having them investigate a murder crime scene, the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings genealogy debate, and the origin theory of Homo sapiens.

"We want students to learn that there are different ways of applying a scientific method," said Brian P. Butz, director of ISAC and principal investigator on the NSF grant. "For example, we want them to understand that you don't have to have a laboratory with experiments, where you take those experiments and you analyze them, build a hypothesis from them and try to replicate the data.

Using INVISSIBLE, students will interact in the three scenarios that reflect the authentic experiences of a scientist engaged in using scientific inquiry methods. The students must use scientific inquiry skills and reasoning patterns necessary for the reconstruction of past events, said Butz, who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Temple.

The first scenario presents students with a murder investigation where they are charged with the responsibility of identifying suspects and solving the crime. Identifying suspects is analogous to generating multiple working hypotheses. According to Butz, his module will introduce students to the procedures of evidence-gathering and analysis used by scientists who study past events, but it will do so in a context that is likely to be familiar to students.

In the second scenario, Butz said, students will be exposed to the evidence for and against the hypothesis that suggests that Thomas Jefferson fathered the children of Sally Hemings. Students will be charged with analyzing the evidence and coming to their own conclusion in the case, making it an effective case study for examining some of the social aspects of the nature of science.

The third module deals with the use of mitochondrial DNA to evaluate two competing theories of the origin of Homo sapiens, the "Out of Africa" theory and the Multiregionalist theory. Using reasoning patterns similar to those used in the first two modules, they will be asked to decide which of the two competing theories is more plausible, Butz said.

"What the students are going to learn in these various scenarios, or modules, is gathering evidence, trying to establish links between people, places and events, and somehow, understanding that it's highly probable that their hypothesis, if supported, is a reasonable one," Butz said. "We also hope to show them that you can come to wrong answers looking at only part of the evidence, and that if they look at only part of the evidence or don't gather all of the evidence, they can establish a reasonable hypothesis and yet come up with the wrong answer."

Butz said that each module will probably take anywhere from two to four hours of classroom time to complete.

In addition to Butz, who will be responsible for all aspects of software development as well as for management of the project, Susan M. Miller, director of the Instructional and Learning Technology Program in Temple's College of Education will serve as a co-principal investigator on the project. Miller will design and co-ordinate project evaluation as well as play a lead role in formulating the pedagogical aspects of the project.

Robert Cooper, a biology teacher at Pennsbury High School and a doctoral candidate in the College of Education, will serve as a Research Fellow on the project and be responsible for developing the content for the modules.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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