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REU 2016 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 three broad foci, (1) Student reasoning, (2) Math in STEM, and (3) Instructional practices. Each REU student will work closely with 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.

1. Student reasoning


Project 1.1. Students’ conceptual understanding of fundamental chemistry concepts
Faculty mentor: James Nyachwaya
Number of students: 1

Conceptual understanding in chemistry is a goal that many instructors have for their courses and students. One way of measuring the level of conceptual understanding is through assessment. Research in chemistry education has consistently shown that while most students show mastery of facts and memorized procedures, they struggle to demonstrate true, conceptual understanding. Through student responses to open ended questions, we seek to characterize students’ conceptual understanding of basic, fundamental chemistry concepts. Our data are drawn from a general chemistry course.

Research Question: What is the nature of general chemistry students’ conceptual understanding of fundamental concepts such as the particulate nature of matter?

In the course of the research experience, participants will:
-Synthesize literature on conceptual understanding in chemistry,
-Analyze student data to determine the nature of understanding,
-Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program, and
-Present their research progress in lab group meetings.

Project 1.2. Context matters: Investigating the role of context in student reasoning across science domains
Faculty mentors: John Buncher, Warren Christensen, Jenni Momsen, James Nyachwaya
Postdoc mentors: La Toya Kissoon-Charles, Lisa Wiltbank
Number of students: 2 - 3

Science is science, right? Or maybe not… Research indicates that student reasoning about scientific ideas isn’t consistent within or across biology, chemistry, and physics. For example, students’ ability to interpret and reason about a graph is dependent on context, e.g., biology or physics. This project will join discipline-based education research (DBER) faculty from biology, chemistry, and physics to explore student reasoning within and across science domains to develop an emerging understanding of how context impacts student reasoning.

Students working on this project will be able to:
-Analyze and categorize students’ written responses,
-Develop and test hypotheses,
-Develop new questions for future study,
-Make and support claims from the data collected,
-Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program, and
-Present their research progress in lab group meetings.

Project 1.3. Student understanding of carbon cycling
Faculty mentor: Jenni Momsen
Number of students: 1

Climate change is topic of global concern. Making sense of climate change requires a conceptual understanding of how carbon moves through ecosystems and general systems thinking skills. This project examines student understanding of carbon movement and systems thinking skills by analyzing student-generated box-and-arrow models. Specific questions include:

1. What ecosystem pools and processes do students identify when modeling carbon cycling?
2. How do students organize those pools and processes?
3. How do students reason about the effects of a perturbation on the ecosystem?

At the end of this research experience, an REU student will be able to:
-Characterize student’s content knowledge and reasoning skills in relation to carbon cycling
-Maintain secure data storage
-Complete basic data analysis in R
-Synthesize literature, and
-Present findings to a broad scientific audience.

2. Math in STEM


Project 2.1. Assessing conceptual learning in university calculus
Faculty Mentor: William Martin
Number of students: 1

The APOS theoretical framework (Action-Process-Object-Schema) has been used widely by mathematics education researchers to describe the development of a variety of core concepts in undergraduate mathematics. In this project research teams will develop genetic decompositions of important concepts that are taught in second semester calculus. Using these analyses they will examine student performance on course examinations to (a) describe the nature of conceptual understanding that has been developed, (b) identify apparent strengths and shortcomings of the learning that took place during the semester, and (c) propose topics and pedagogy that could strengthen the conceptual learning by students in future courses. The data analysis will primarily focus on students’ final examination papers.

Project 2.2. Why are numbers so scary? Investigating correlations between students’ quantitative anxiety their performance in an upper level course that utilizes a large number of mathematical and statistical problem-based learning activities
Faculty Mentor: Matthew Smith
Postdoc Mentor: La Toya Kissoon-Charles
Number of students: 1

Despite being an upper level and graduate level course, students in Conservation Biology still have a great deal of anxiety and reluctance to work through quantitative assessments designed to further their understanding of complex conservation biology issues. This project’s goals are to: (1) examine how the students’ anxiety and previous quantitative abilities change during the course of a semester in a class that heavily relies on quantitative examples during the learning process, (2) examine correlations between students’ prior experiences and their quantitative anxiety, (3) assess how the use of quantitative formative assessment influences the students’ ability to evaluate theories in conservation biology and synthesize new ideas on course topics.

The researcher on this project will be able to:
-Develop and test hypotheses
-Make and support claims from previously collected data
-Develop new questions for future study

Project 2.3. What is the state of student quantitative skills in undergraduate biology?
Faculty mentor: Jenni Momsen
Postdoc mentor: La Toya Kissoon-Charles
Number of students: 1

Quantitative skills are crucial for future biologists, physicians, and citizens, all of whom must be able to interpret quantitative information. National calls to integrate quantitative skills in biology has led to efforts at the institution and faculty level to incorporate quantitative elements into biology curricula. Integration of quantitative elements in biology courses gives students the opportunity to practice applying quantitative skills while learning biology.  What is the state of student quantitative skills amidst these integration efforts? This project will assess (1) baseline quantitative skills that students bring to the biology classroom and (2) student performance on quantitative exam items in introductory and upper level biology courses.

Students working on this project will be able to:
-Compare baseline quantitative skills at the introductory and upper levels
-Identify and characterize quantitative items on graded exams
-Analyze student scores on quantitative exam items
-Synthesize literature-Present research findings to a broad scientific audience

Project 2.4. Investigating the interplay of students’ mathematics and physics thinking
Faculty mentor: Warren Christensen
Number of students: 1

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 further develop 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, and concepts of coordinate systems in the context of electricity and magnetism. 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 may also participate in conducting interviews among undergraduates, graduate students and, potentially, physics faculty.

3. Instructional practices


Project 3.1. Beyond Active Learning: Learning Assistant (LA) Supported Pedagogies in Large Lecture Science Courses
Faculty mentor: Jeff Boyer
Number of students: 1 - 2

This project will investigate how active learning methods and Learning Assistant support contribute to the learning gains, achievement, retention, and persistence of STEM majors. Active learning is a term generally used to describe interactive innovations in undergraduate science teaching. There is strong evidence that the implementation of active learning methods in undergraduate science courses can lead to increased student conceptual understanding and course achievement. Learning Assistants (LAs) are undergraduates who facilitate learning of their peers in an active learning classroom while developing their understanding of how people learn. There is also evidence that LAs can support the use of active learning methods in the large lecture science classroom. The goal of this project is to examine the interaction of active learning methods and LA support in undergraduate science courses. Our research questions are:

-What are the activities employed in undergraduate science courses?
-How can these activities be understood in terms of a cognitive process framework?
-How are LAs involved in supporting these activities?
-How does engaging in these activities with and without LA support contribute to student level outcomes?

At the end of this research experience, students will be able to:
-Synthesize relevant literature
-“Clean” collected data in preparation for data analysis
-Analyze and summarize data using R and other statistical tools
-Test hypotheses against data sets
-Presents findings based on available evidence to a broad scientific audience

Project 3.2. Can assessment make a class LESS stressful? Identifying successful formative assessment strategies in Biology courses
Faculty mentors: Jenni Momsen
Postdoc Mentor: Lisa Wiltbank
Number of student: 1

When most students think of assessment, they have anxious memories of difficult tests that aim to discover what a student has learned. However, assessment can be used in and out of class each day to discover how a student is learning. In that way, both students and teachers can change their strategies to avoid surprises at the end of the semester and beyond. This type of diagnostic assessment before the final exam is called formative assessment. Many times this assessment is not in the form of traditional quizzes or exams. Although there are “how-to” manuals for instructors to implement formative assessment, none of them are based on empirical data for how a student can best use formative assessment.

Research Aims: This project aims to characterize the strategies that good teachers use to implement formative assessment and, ultimately, how these strategies impact student learning.

Learning opportunities and contributions of RAs on this project:

Research techniques:
-Make observations of Biology classes
-Conduct grounded theory research

Teaching techniques:
-Identify effective strategies for formative assessment that can be shared and utilized

Scientific skills:
-Read and synthesize scientific literature
-Contribute to development of theoretical models and testable hypotheses

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.

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Last Updated: Monday, November 23, 2015 6:51:43 PM
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