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Graduate student receives National Science Foundation fellowship

Published July 01, 2014

Clarity and comprehension – those are the goals of NDSU doctoral student Jessie Arneson in her work to improve science education.

According to Arneson, many incoming graduate students cannot fully understand the scientific images and intricate graphs they see in research publications. So, she’s developing training methods to give students necessary cognitive skills.

Arneson, who is researching biochemistry and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education, known as STEM, recently was awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship by the National Science Foundation to follow through on her work.

NSF funded 2,000 fellowships out of more than 14,000 applicants. Arneson received three years of funding totaling about $135,000 to cover tuition and a stipend.

“A big part of science is communicated through visualization – maps, computer models or pictures showing results of experiments,” Arneson explained. “However, we identified that students going on to graduate school often can’t interpret professional images in the literature, so they struggle with that. We looked back through the undergraduate curriculum to see where the problem was. Sure enough, the primary textbooks that are used don’t include the scaffolding of skills they need.”

Graduate student Jessie Arneson received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. She is developing a method to improve science education for undergraduates. Her work will contribute to a national effort to better prepare future scientists and improve the scientific literacy of the general population.

Arneson is developing a series of tasks students should be able to complete, based on data gleaned from a graph, photo or computer model. As the students go through the checklist of items, they’ll learn by doing. The goal is to incorporate the training in a biochemistry class, with the hope to eventually include it in other disciplines.

“We want to develop tasks students can use at every level of practice,” Arneson said. “Can you interpret the message? Can you build one? Can you use this to make an argument or pose a hypothesis?”

This is the kind of work the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program likes to see. Designed to help ensure the vitality of science and engineering in the United States, the program supports outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at American institutions.

“Jessie is a unique student in that she can work fluidly across disciplines, a critical skill for the interdisciplinary nature of discipline-based education research,” said Erika Offerdahl, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry and Arneson’s academic adviser. “The impact of Jessie’s research is likely to be far-reaching. Her project is in direct response to national calls to transform undergraduate education to better reflect the practice and process of science.”

Arneson, a native of Jamestown, N.D., earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and biotechnology from NDSU in December 2012, and then enrolled in the NDSU Graduate School to seek her doctorate. She said she was encouraged to do so by her grandfather, George Barron, who taught chemistry and physics for 35 years at Jamestown High School. Arneson hopes to follow a similar career path, teaching biochemistry or microbiology at the collegiate level.

“The biggest drive for me in this research is to try to improve education in science – to provide more training for future scientists and improve the scientific literacy of the general population,” Arneson said. “That’s a big goal of the National Science Foundation as well, and that’s why they chose to sponsor me. I feel they trust me to work towards that.”

The award number for Arneson’s fellowship is DGE-1010619. More information about the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program is available at


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