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REU 2014 Project Descriptions

CiDER faculty at North Dakota State University engage in discipline-based education research at the undergraduate level in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, math, and physics. These faculty have compiled brief REU project descriptions across four broad foci, (1) Visual representations and reasoning, (2) Deconstructing assessments and instructional practices, (3) Math in STEM, and (4) Student reasoning and metacognition. Each student will work closely with the associated project mentor(s), taking ownership of a portion of the research. As part of your application and to help ensure a good research experience this summer, we will ask you to identify your top 3 project choices.

Focus 1: Visual representations and reasoning

Project 1.1
A picture is worth a thousand data points:  Developing visual literacy in the molecular life sciences

Research Team: Erika G. Offerdahl (mentor), Jenni Momsen (faculty collaborator), Jessie Arneson (graduate research assistant)

Visualizations (e.g., graphs, diagrams) are ubiquitous in science. As scientists, we use them to communicate complex data sets, processes, and relationships to one another, our students, and the public. National calls to transform science instruction underscore the need to develop students’ understanding of the tools and disciplinary practices of scientists.  Visual thinking – the ability to interpret and make sense of visualizations – is one such disciplinary practice that, to date, is seldom an explicit learning outcome of undergraduate science curricula.  Moreover, while science instruction makes extensive use of visualizations in textbooks, simulations, and lecture slides, it is unclear the degree to which such visualizations support development of students’ visual thinking skills.  The goal of this study is to (1) create instructional materials that scaffold the development of visual thinking skills and (2) analyze performance data to determine the effectiveness of these materials.

Members of the visualization team will benefit from the experience by: 

  • Deepening their conceptual understanding of molecular biology and biochemistry
  • Use evidence to develop assessments and instruction on visualizations in molecular biology and biochemistry
  • Analyze measures of student learning
  • Applying basic descriptive statistics to characterize student learning

Members of the visualization team will be expected to:

  • Work independently and as part of a team to create instructional materials and analyze student performance data
  • Read research articles on visualization and participate in weekly discussion of the research
  • Present their research progress in lab group meeting at least twice during the summer
  • Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program 
Project 1.2
Representations in general chemistry textbooks: Do they aid or hinder understanding?

Research team: James Nyachwaya (mentor), Nathan Wood (faculty collaborator)

The topic of multiple representations in the discipline of chemistry has been widely researched. Textbook authors and publishers have taken heed and included multiple representations in newer editions of chemistry textbooks. In this study, we look at the way representations are used in general chemistry textbooks. We intend to investigate two issues, (1) What are the features of the representations that are likely to enhance or hinder understanding? And (2) are the number of representations used adequate in illustrating a concept? Do too many representations end up being a distraction for students?

At the end of the research experience, students will be able to:

  • Synthesize literature on representations,
  • Classify various representations used in given general chemistry textbooks,
  • Identify features of various representations used in textbooks, and
  • Present findings to a broad scientific audience.
Project 1.3
Characterizing assessment of visual thinking in undergraduate science courses

Research team: Jenni Momsen (co-mentor), Erika Offerdahl (co-mentor)

Visualizations, such as graphs, drawings, and diagrams, are essential to communicating science to multiple audiences, including fellow scientists, policy makers, the public, and undergraduate science students. Within undergraduate science classrooms, visualizations are ubiquitous, found on every page of most textbooks and throughout classroom slides and activities. However, assessing students’ visual literacy – that is, the ability to construct, interpret, and reason with visualizations – remains a largely implicit goal of most undergraduate science curriculum. If assessment truly drives learning, then it stands to reason that assessment of visual thinking will promote student visual literacy. This project will use established coding rubrics in concert with created rubrics to characterize assessment of visual literacy drawn from multiple introductory science courses. Specific questions may include:

  • How is visual literacy typically assessed in introductory science courses?
  • How do the needed visual skills differ across the sciences?
  • What visual thinking skills are routinely assessed by questions with visualizations?

At the end of this research experience, students will be able to:

  • Use multiple coding schemes to describe assessment items,
  • Initiate and maintain data collection,
  • Complete basic data analysis,
  • Synthesize relevant literature, and
  • Present findings to a broad scientific audience.
Project 1.4
Recognizing student difficulties in Human Anatomy and Physiology

Research team: Lisa Montplaisir (mentor), Jenni Momsen (faculty collaborator), Tara Slominski (graduate research assistant)

Students often express more frustration when learning about abstract body systems than those containing large and familiar organ structures. This idea coincides with literature suggesting students struggle more with concepts that they can’t easily visualize. Literature also tells us that students have a more difficult time learning human physiology than they do human anatomy. A better understanding of these student difficulties could result in better curriculum design and a better learning experience for the student. This research will ascertain the prevalence of these difficulties in a real Human Anatomy and Physiology course. Students will work closely with a graduate student and faculty member to analyze a series of assessments. The analyses will be framed by two guiding questions: Do students struggle more with some body systems than others? Do students struggle more with physiology content than anatomical?

Through this research experience, students will:

  • Develop skills in data analysis such as creating and applying rubrics and statistical analyses
  • Gain a rich understanding of Human Anatomy and Physiology content for their particular project (Some familiarity of Anatomy and Physiology is preferred.) 

Members of the research team will be expected to:

  • Work independently and as part of a team to analyze figures
  • Read research articles on visualizations and participate in a weekly discussion of the research
  • Present their research progress in lab group meetings
  • Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program
Project 1.5
Effects of Phylogenetic Tree Construction Style on Student Interpretations

Research team: Jennifer Momsen (mentor) and Jonathan Dees (graduate research assistant and project lead)

Evolution is the fundamental theory that holds all of biology together, and phylogenetic trees are visual representations of evolutionary hypotheses. These representations have a tremendous impact on how students understand evolution, yet many biology students are unable to accurately interpret phylogenetic trees. The two common construction styles of phylogenetic trees are diagonal and bracket, and some evidence in the literature suggests students have an easier time interpreting the bracket style. This project seeks evidence to support or refute that claim by analyzing student responses to questions associated with both styles, and by identifying the style preferences of students when constructing their own representations.

As a result of this research experience, students will:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of evolution and phylogenetic trees,
  • Appreciate the importance of visual representations in sciences,
  • Develop skills in data analysis such as coding and statistics,
  • Present research progress to peers and mentors,
  • Seek, gather, and synthesize literature related to the project,
  • Pursue a related research question of interest to the student, and
  • Present findings in the form of a scientific poster at the program’s conclusion.

Focus 2: Deconstructing assessments and instructional practices

Project 2.1.
What’s that LASSI?  Characterizing the impact of undergraduate learning assistants in biology, chemistry, and physics

Research Team: Erika G. Offerdahl (mentor), Jeff Boyer, Jennifer Momsen (faculty collaborators)

The Learning Assistants Supporting Science Instruction (LASSI) program at NDSU partners talented undergraduate learning assistants (LAs) with faculty teaching large-enrollment science courses to create learner-centered classrooms that are conceptually driven, cognitively challenging, and authentic to the discipline. In the classroom, LAs facilitate small group discussions, data-driven activities, and support an interactive learning experience for students enrolled in the course. The goal of this project is to characterize the impact of LAs on student learning in undergraduate science.  REU participants working on this project will analyze data (e.g., video, audio, quizzes, homework) to characterize the nature of learning environments, student activities, and assessments used in classes with LAs.

Members of the research team will be expected to:

  • Work independently and as part of a team to analyze data
  • Read research articles on assessment and active learning pedagogy and participate in weekly discussion of the research
  • Present their research progress in lab group meeting at least twice during the summer
  • Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program 

Possible skills learned by team members include:

  • Analyzing student/teacher activities using an observation protocol
  • Systematically categorizing or “coding” exam and quiz questions using Bloom’s taxonomy
  • Develop a coding rubric to characterize student work
  • Applying basic descriptive statistics and inferential statistics
Project 2.2
Assessing the flexibility of research-based instructional strategies: Implementing Tutorials in Introductory Physics in the lecture environment

Research team: Mila Kryjevskaia (mentor)

This project seeks to lower perceived barriers by documenting the learning gains that can be achieved when a Physics Education Research-based curriculum is implemented in a new setting.  We implement materials from Tutorials in Introductory Physics (originally designed and implemented by the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington) in modified form as interactive lectures under conditions significantly different from those suggested by the curriculum developers.  Student learning is assessed using tasks drawn from the Physics Education Research literature.  Our current findings suggest that the use of tutorials in the interactive lecture format yields gains in student understanding comparable to those obtained through the canonical tutorial implementation at the University of Washington.  These findings suggest that student engagement with the intellectual steps laid out in the tutorials, rather than the specific strategies used in facilitating such engagement, plays the central role in promoting student learning.

Project 2.3
Identifying connections between instructors’ pedagogical decisions and students’ performance and self-reported satisfaction

Research team: Warren Christensen (mentor), Charles Henderson, and Melissa Dancy (faculty collaborators)

Henderson and Dancy have conducted seminal work on factors that motivate and influence faculties’ pedagogical decisions in physics. Their enormous data corpus features dozens of faculty participants and artifacts including interviews, course syllabi, conceptual survey data, student evaluations and sample exams over multiple semesters.  Using student’s rating of instruction, and student performance on conceptual surveys as a guide, a summer researcher will investigate faculty interviews and attempt to unpack why shifts in these two dimensions occurred. This ethnographic study will investigate the culture of faculty pedagogical practice and faculty responses to feedback received from their students The study will rely on a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods.

Research Questions include:

  • How does feedback from students influence an instructor’s pedagogical decisions in classroom?
  • To what extent can changes in instructional practice be tracked to changes in student satisfaction and the learning that occurs in the classroom?

A student researcher will:

  • Develop methods for coding and analyzing interview data,
  • Search for artifacts of evolving pedagogical strategies, and
  • Engage in hypothesis development and testing.
Project 2.4
Digital exhaust: Predicting performance from online interactions 

Research team: Erika Offerdahl (mentor), Jeff Boyer (faculty collaborator)

When students interact with online tools, such as a learning management system (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle, D2L, etc.), they leave behind a digital “exhaust” that is collected in access logs.  Thus, it is possible to summarize and analyze patterns of student behavior based on these documented timestamps.  It is likely that successful students exhibit different access patterns than non-successful students.  Instructors may benefit from understanding how and when students interact online.  In essence, a pattern of interaction with an online resource or tool may provide information to instructors that indicate a need to intervene with students who are not performing adequately within a course. Thus, the purpose of this research is to identify students’ online interaction patterns and to determine if these can be used as an intervention tool for struggling students (i.e., an early warning system).

The research questions that guide this work are:

  • To what degree does interaction with online resources predict course performance?
  • Could interaction with online resources serve as an early warning system for students who need intervention?

At the end of this research experience, students will be able to: 

  • “Clean” collected data in preparation for data analysis
  • Analyze and summarize data using R and other statistical tools
  • Test hypotheses against data sets
  • Develop predictive models for student performance
  • Present findings based on available evidence
Project 2.5
Using portfolios of learning to measure student learning in biology

Research team: Erika Offerdahl (mentor), Wendy Reed, Jenni Momsen (faculty collaborators)

Assessments are more than a means to a grade and can facilitate a meaningful learning process. Portfolios of learning are somewhat novel assessments in STEM education, representing a purposeful collection of evidence documenting a learner’s achievement, progress, and growth. Through the process of assembling the portfolio, learners must reflect deeply on their understanding and are required go through a process of review and revision of their ideas. This project will investigate the utility of portfolios of learning in assessing student learning in an upper division biology course.

Potential research questions include:

  • To what extent do portfolios of learning align with the stated learning goals of the course and national standards (i.e., Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education)?
  • In what ways do portfolios of learning capture student learning?
  • Does the evidence of learning captured from portfolios in align with evidence of learning measured through open-ended assessments?

The student researcher will:

  • Learn to code and transform student-generated narratives,
  • Create and maintain data collection,
  • Complete basic data analysis,
  • Synthesize relevant literature, and
  • Present findings to a broad scientific audience. 

Focus 3: Math in STEM

Project 3.1
Investigating the interplay of students’ mathematics and physics thinking

Research team: Warren Christensen (mentor)

Despite four or more semesters devoted to learning calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations in mathematics classrooms, students often encounter substantial challenges when asked to perform physics tasks that require the use of what should be learned skills from math. This project will extend initial investigations into students thinking about mathematics within the context of middle-division of math and the upper-division of physics classes. Topics of interest include investigations into students understanding of linear algebra concepts like matrix multiplication after having used those skills in a first-semester quantum mechanics course.Conducting research at the upper-division necessarily requires a focus on qualitative research due to small number of students typically enrolled in upper-division physics course. The REU student on this project, will analyze previously collected interview data to better understand students nuanced thinking about their mathematical understanding. The student will also develop an interview protocol that investigates both mathematics and physics thinking, and then conduct interviews among graduate students and, potentially, physics faculty.

Research questions include:

  • How do students/graduate students/faculty use mathematics to solve math and physics problems?
  • What can a theoretical framework of framing tell us about how students use mathematics in the upper-division? 

Through participation in this project students will:

  • Read literature across the domain of mathematics and physics education research
  • Analyze video data and learn to make claims based on qualitative evidence
  • Attain skills in interview protocol development
  • Conduct interviews with physics and mathematics faculty

Focus 4: Student reasoning and metacognition

Project 4.1
Cycle and re-cycle: Understanding and improving student reasoning about biogeochemical cycles

Research team: Jennifer Momsen (mentor), Jon Dees (graduate research assistant)

Understanding biogeochemical cycling requires students to use systems thinking, a skill set rarely taught in undergraduate biology courses and compounded by pervasive and persistent misconceptions about the movement of matter (e.g., carbon, nitrogen). This project will use existing assessment data to characterize biology students’ systems thinking skills in the context of carbon and nitrogen cycling and will support development of an evidenced-based pedagogy to improve student learning about biogeochemical cycling.

At the end of this research experience, an REU student will be able to: 

  • Qualitatively describe and quantitatively summarize biology students’ systems thinking difficulties
  • Develop pedagogy based on student learning needs
  • Initiate and maintain secure data collection
  • Complete basic data analysis
  • Synthesize literature, and
  • Present findings to a broad scientific audience. 
Project 4.2
Confirmation Bias in Science: Investigation of student reasoning in physics courses

Research team: Mila Kryjevskaia (mentor)

The term "confirmation bias" refers to a tendency to favor evidence that confirms specific preconceived notions, believes, expectations, or even hypothesis at hand. "When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!" (Mackay). Understanding the difference between (1) impartially interpreting data in order to arrive at an unbiased conclusion and (2) selectively interpreting data to justify a specific conclusion is particularly important for science and engineering students. However, many introductory physics student responses to a variety of tasks suggest that students tend to apply both thinking schemas when presented with an unfamiliar situation. While one schema involves an unbiased and systematic analysis of a presented situation, the other reveals reasoning steps that lead to an intuitive answer that is perhaps more intuitively appealing to a student. This project focuses on probing whether the latter reasoning pattern is consistent with the confirmation bias.

Project 4.3
Answer first: Applying heuristic-analytic theory of reasoning to examine student intuitive thinking in the context of physics

Research team: Mila Kryjevskaia (mentor)

This study is motivated by the emerging body of evidence that suggests that student conceptual and reasoning competence demonstrated on one task often fails to be exhibited on another.  Indeed, even after instruction specifically designed to address student conceptual and reasoning difficulties identified by rigorous research, many undergraduate physics students fail to build reasoning chains from fundamental principles even though they possess required knowledge and skills to do so.  Instead, they often rely on a variety of intuitive reasoning strategies.  In this study, we have developed a methodology that allows for the disentanglement of student conceptual understanding and reasoning approaches.  We then apply heuristic-analytic theory of reasoning in order to account for, in a mechanistic fashion, the observed inconsistencies in student responses.  We argue that efforts to improve student metacognition, which serves to regulate the conflict between intuitive and analytical reasoning, are likely to lead to improved student reasoning.

Project 4.4
Student Use of Procedural Reasoning in Undergraduate Biology Courses

Research team: Jennifer Momsen (mentor), Jonathan Dees (graduate research assistant and project lead), and Caitlin Brussard (undergraduate research assistant)

Discipline-based education research seeks to foster conceptual understanding of biology, chemistry, physics, and other subjects. However, many students continue to use shallow learning strategies such as memorization and procedural reasoning. For example, organic chemistry students commonly attempt to memorize countless reactions without trying to understand the foundational concepts, while physics students sometimes attempt to solve problems by manipulating equations and variables. This unique project seeks to identify and determine the prevalence of procedural reasoning strategies in undergraduate biology courses at multiple institutions across the United States. The study currently focuses on reasoning involving the central dogma of molecular biology and Mendelian genetics.

As a result of this research experience, students will:

  • Gain a deeper conceptual understanding of biology
  • Develop skills in data analysis such as rubric use and development, statistics
  • Work both independently and as part of an established team
  • Present research progress to peers and mentors
  • Seek, gather, and synthesize literature related to the project
  • Pursue a related research question of interest to the student
  • Present findings in the form of a scientific poster at the program’s conclusion
Project 4.5
Evolving undergraduate biology: Using open-ended assessments to characterize student reasoning about evolution

Research team: Jenni Momsen (co-mentor), Lisa Montplaisir (co-mentor)

Evolution is a thread that unites life sciences and is, as a result, a core concept in undergraduate biology education. Despite the importance of evolution in biology, students struggle when learning about evolution and these learning challenges are well documented. This project seeks to characterize student reasoning about evolution across the undergraduate biology major. Using open-ended assessment items collected from introductory biology and a senior capstone course, this project will code and characterize biology students’ understanding of evolution.

At the end of this research experience, an REU student will be able to: 

  • Qualitatively describe and quantitatively summarize students’ reasoning about evolution,
  • Initiate and maintain secure data collection,
  • Complete basic data analysis,
  • Synthesize literature, and
  • Present findings to a broad scientific audience.

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Last Updated: Thursday, November 14, 2013 10:12:26 PM