Interactive Learning & Design Lab


Fostering Deep Learning of Complex Biology for Building Our Next Generation’s Scientists

Funded by The National Science Foundations DRK-12 Program

The goal of this project is to help middle school students, particularly in rural and underserved areas, develop deep scientific knowledge and knowledge of the practices and routines of science.

Today’s citizens face profound questions in science: Is it a good idea to submit one’s DNA for genetic testing to screen for potential future diseases? Which forms of clean energy are most efficient and have the least impact on the environment? How can we grow food plants sustainably in changing environments? Preparing future generations of scientists is crucial if the United States is to remain competitive in a technology-focused economy. Life sciences, especially Biology, are of particular importance for addressing some of today’s complex problems, such as sustainability and food production, biofuels, and carbon dioxide and its effect on our environment. Although knowledge in the life sciences is of critical importance, this is an area in which there are significantly fewer studies examining students’ conceptions than in physics and chemistry. To address these concerns, research teams from the UW-Madison, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Auburn University will develop, iteratively refine and evaluate an innovative learning environment called Bio-Sphere. Each Bio-Sphere unit presents a complex science issue in the form of a design challenge that students solve by conducting experiments, using visualizations in an etextbook, and connecting with the community. The units, aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), will provide greater coherence, continuity, and sustained instruction focused on uncovering and integrating key ideas over long periods of time. A major strength of Bio-Sphere is the inclusion of hands-on design and engineering in Biology, a field in which there are fewer instances of curricula that integrate engineering design at the middle school level.

The project will follow a design-based research methodology. In Phase 1, the Bio-Sphere materials will be developed. Phase 2 will consist of studies in Wisconsin schools to generate existence proofs, i.e., examining enactments with respect to the designed objectives to understand how a design works. Phase 3 studies will focus on practical implementation: how to bring this innovative design to life in very different classroom contexts and without the everyday support of the design team, and will be conducted in rural schools in Alabama and North Carolina. Finally, in Phase 4, studies with comparison groups will be conducted in three states. During all the phases, quantitative measures of students’ learning outcomes, will be used along with qualitative measures to understand how students learn, and how teachers facilitate students’ learning.

In this project, research teams from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Auburn University will join forces to develop, iteratively refine and evaluate an innovative learning environment, Bio-Sphere, that combines the strengths of hands-on design and engineering, as well as simulations and visualizations of knowledge structures, to foster learning of complex science issues, especially among underserved populations. Our objectives are as follows:

  1. Foster a cohesive understanding of science content
  2. Integrate science and engineering practices
  3. Implement units in rural and underserved areas
  4. Involve Parents and the community
  5. Understand variations in implementations across different contexts

Bio-Sphere Units