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Implementing Quantitative Biology Modules Across Institutions

By Jillian Kunze

Based on calls for change in biology education, the National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education project was funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute to develop competency-based modules. The grant was awarded to efforts at several different institutions, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). UMBC’s project aimed to infuse mathematical modules into introductory biology courses, and found that the module was generally effective in the short term (not enough time has passed to draw conclusions about the longer term). Students were able to improve in quantitative memorization, data interpretation, and math modeling.

However, there was an item of concern: only direct-entry students really benefited from the project. Transfer students, on the other hand, made small or no gains in the quantitative skills being measured. More than half of UMBC biology undergraduates are transfer students—the majority of whom come from four nearby community colleges—so a large portion of the biology student population was missing out on the increase in quantitative skills.

This problem was the impetus for a large project at UMBC funded through the National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (NSF IUSE) program. The project, which implements introductory quantitative biology modules across UMBC and the four community colleges, has completed four years out of its total five-year run. Sarah Leupen of UMBC spoke about the outcomes of this project so far during a minisymposium presentation at the 2022 SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education, which took place this week concurrently with the 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting.  “What happens to our students before they get to us?” Leupen asked. “And can we influence that?” 

This project involves three main research questions. “The first question was just ‘Can we do this?’” Leupen said. “Can we even develop a structure that combines all five institutions’ interests and students, can we share data among the institutions, and so on?” The project brought in an external evaluator who could objectively measure its success in these areas. At this point through the project’s run, this is the only research question that has been fully answered.

Figure 1. The collaborative structure for the IUSE-funded project. Figure courtesy of Sarah Leupen.
The second research question is whether implementing these modules will increase students’ quantitative skills in the short and long term. The data for investigating this question takes several forms: students complete assessment questions at the beginning and end of each module, fill out a math-biology values index, and complete a demographic survey on their mathematical experience. The UMBC biology department also already used a global assessment that students took on the first day of their first biology course and in the last weeks of their last biology course, so the IUSE-funded project implemented this assessment in the community colleges as well.

The third research question asks whether the quantitative training could extend beyond the modules — that is, do students with this training perform better overall at UMBC? Answering this question requires sharing both course-level data as well as global assessment data across institutions.

The cross-institutional project requires collaboration among many groups within a huge structure (see Figure 1). “One of the first things that had to happen is the curricular alignment,” Leupen said. “We had to agree what Biology 1 is, what happens in that course, what are the quantitative competencies that we’re looking for in that course, and what are the biological topics and goals that we have for that course.” Individuals in the curricular alignment group met across institutions to share curriculum. Faculty from all institutions also meet in work groups to write, implement, and revise quantitative modules. A faculty development person is embedded in these work groups to provide guidance on developing good assessment questions. An external advisory board is a part of the structure as well, and the project is overseen by principal investigators who met frequently and kept the project going smoothly even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the project decided on six foundational quantitative competencies, most of which were drawn from Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians

  1. Demonstrate quantitative numeracy and facility with the language of mathematics
  2. Interpret data sets and communicate those interpretations using visual tools
  3. Demonstrate proficiency with statistical analyses and make inferences
  4. Demonstrate facility with mathematical models of biological systems and make inferences
  5. Apply algorithmic approaches and principles of problem-solving
  6. Use quantitative language to describe biological phenomena.

Figure 2. The quantitative biology modules that the work groups for the IUSE-funded project have developed so far. Figure courtesy of Sarah Leupen.
The four working groups wrote 24 modules in total, many of which have already been piloted in the classroom, revised, and used again more than once (see Figure 2). As students move throughout their biology course sequence, they hit the same competencies again at higher levels of difficulty. So far, the project has done well at teaching the first two competencies especially and has hit the others with varying levels of depth.

One logistical challenge was that this project required a memorandum of understanding in order to share data across institutions. Though this was a significant amount of work, it was quite important; prior to this collaboration, the community colleges had no way of knowing what happened to their students after they moved to other institutions.

Leupen provided several examples of outcomes from modules that had been implemented in the classroom, using data collected from students to determine if the modules had succeeded in their goals. Hundreds of students have taken the cell biology module, which has already been taught several times. The work group saw significant growth in quantitative skills for all four competencies that this module was meant to address, through some skills saw more success than others. There was strong reliability in the data — students taking the same test again generally attained the same score. The validity of the data was more variable, so the working group is improving upon some of the questions.

Leupen then showed outcomes from several module student learning assessments. For a module on glucose transfer, there were eight questions related to four competencies; questions for similar skills were paired to check their validity. It seemed that some of the questions were too confusing or difficult for the students, so the team will continue to adjust them. The assessment for a different module on action potential focused on only two competencies, with four questions total (see Figure 3). There was a good amount of growth in quantitative skills for both items, and similar patterns for the related questions indicated that the questions were likely valid.

Figure 3. The results from the module assessment for the action potential module. Figure courtesy of Sarah Leupen.

To get an idea of student opinions on these modules, students were asked to write what they found to be the most effective components; researchers then picked out the patterns. Students felt that they benefitted from analyzing data, active learning, and working with others. Excitingly, they did not have many comments on aspects of the module that they did not find to be effective. Though students may have previously seen mathematics as being separate from biological learning, that was not the case anymore.

Overall, the project has been quite successful in terms of the first research question, and many participants have been very enthusiastic about the effort despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though all of the data needed to answer the last two research questions is not yet available—as the project is not yet complete—the modules do seem to be working well and are accepted by the students. Leupen noted that her group hoped to be able to share the modules with other institutions once the grant is completed. “I think it’s amazing that we got these five institutions logistically, technically, motivationally, and in every other way to actually talk to each other,” Leupen said. “We learned so much from each other outside of this grant, too, about pedagogy and about our students — it’s really just been tremendously helpful.”

Acknowledgements: Sarah Leupen’s coauthors on this talk are Kathleen A. Hoffman, Michelle Starz-Gaiano, and Tory Williams (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), as well as Hannah Pie and Patricia Turner (Howard Community College).

  Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News