CityLab: A Systems Approach to Biology — Phase I/II

  • Project Description

    Develop a methodology for teaching middle and high school students strategies for scientific thinking based on systems analysis. The methodology begins with the premise that intelligent action is demonstrated by knowing what to do when one does not have an answer. It follows a progression of inquiry anchored in the development of descriptive explanatory and experimental models. Pilot test the teaching methods with middle and high school students and assess their ability to recognize and apply strategies of scientific thinking based on systems analysis. Develop an assessment tool that measures students’ ability to use the proposed strategies for scientific thinking.

  • Abstract

    CityLab a regional biotechnology learning laboratory is the umbrella under which Boston University School of Medicine concentrates its pre-college science education efforts. CityLab has provided more than 60000 middle and high school students and their teachers with hands-on inquiry-based biomedical science laboratory experiences via its well-received curriculum supplements. CityLab’s two dedicated laboratories and its mobile biotechnology laboratory (MobileLab) now serve over 9000 students per year. CityLab s a successful model for both local and national efforts to improve pre-college science education as evidenced by its long waiting list to secure a visit and by the growing number of CityLab satellites that have replicated many facets of this program. CityLab also disseminates its curriculum supplements directly to teachers who can implement the curriculum in their own classrooms. To date we estimate that nearly 300000 students have participated in a laboratory experience that utilizes CityLab-developed materials. CityLab’s mission is to introduce pre-college students and their teachers to the world of biotechnology as a means of promoting both interest in science and scientific literacy. Students who are interested in science may pursue advanced coursework in preparation for a career in the biomedical sciences. Further an informed citizenry will make prudent policy and health/lifestyle decisions. These goals have led us to expand our vision of pre-college science education to encompass a broader systems approach to biology. Our primary aims for the next five years are to work with local teachers to develop new laboratory curriculum supplements that will use a coordinated systems approach to unify the study of many key life science topics in the state and national frameworks. We propose to create a series of laboratory experiences that will allow students to explore blood as a means of understanding protein structure and function cell structure and related topics. These new materials will be disseminated through our growing network of CityLab satellites.

  • Dissemination Strategies

    The methods that result from this study will be disseminated through the following resources: CityLab and CityLab satellites MobileLab and the Mobile Laboratory Coalition Presentations at professional conferences Publications in education and science journals

  • Project Evaluation(s)

    The evaluation of the CityLabs SEPA was conducted by Boston-area evaluator Davis Square Research Associates (DSRA). The key questions driving the evaluation were: Is student learning of biology content significantly improved through the use of CityLabs new systems approach as developed during this project? Does participation in the project elicit student responses to science problems that suggest an ability to recognize and apply strategies of scientific thinking based on systems analysis? Are student attitudes toward science improved through participation in lessons taught using the new systems approach? In order to answer these questions DSRA employed a three-site quasi-experimental study that took place in Spring 2006. The three sites were a suburban Jewish middle school (N=31) a small suburban middle school (N=39) and a private all-girls suburban high school (N=61). The sample was composed of both middle and high school students with the groups matched for each site. The datasets included a pre- and post-test developed by CityLab composed of a range of problems that progressed from the relatively simple to more abstract problems only loosely related to the content that was taught. To measure attitudes towards science DSRA used the TOSRA and this survey was administered online. Finally to gather some indication of changes in student thinking the investigators conducted think-aloud protocols with a subset (N=10) of students at each site. These think-alouds were transcribed and later analyzed. Pre- and post-test data were analyzed in SPSS as were the pre- and post-TOSRA surveys. Key findings include the following: Both treatment and comparison groups made significant gains in content understanding There were no significant differences between the two groups in the post-test scores There was no correlation between test scores and attitudes The strongest predictor of variance on the post-test was the pre-test score Lessons learned: The treatment period needs to be longer than a single unit for students to experience the kind of conceptual change that will affect their responses to more abstract problems. The assessment instrument needs to be more sensitive to uncover the projected changes in student thinking. The TOSRA assessment of attitude may not be as relevant to the outcomes of the treatment as the investigators originally thought. CityLab is considering revising this aspect of the assessment to focus more on conceptual change among the students with respect to habits of mind associated with scientific thinking rather than shifts in attitudes towards science that would logically follow from the conceptual change. Student responses on the post-tests and think-alouds exhibited evidence that students can learn to create descriptive models using the systematic approach targeted in the teaching methodology presented to the treatment groups.

  • Resources for Sharing

    We have developed methodology that uses lateral thinking puzzles to introduce systems analysis to students. The methodology is based on a progression of inquiry that requires students to develop descriptive explanatory and experimental models initiated by the following fundamental questions of inquiry: What are the elements of the system? What is the background space that defines the context of the system? What are the rules of interaction among the elements in the system? What are the emergent properties of the system? A curriculum supplement titled “Houston We Have a Problem: An Investigation of Blood and Human Physiology in the Context of Space Anemia.” An instrument called the Systems Thinking Analysis Tool (STAT) to assess systems thinking strategies.

Project Audience

The results of this study will be informative for all educators concerned with teaching middle and high school students the habits of mind associated with scientific thinking.

Associated SEPA Project(s)