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Fisher Faculty Member Leads Effort to Weave Big Data into Biology Education

November 15, 2017

St. John Fisher College faculty member Dr. Kaitlin Bonner recently received a grant totaling nearly $50,000 from the National Science Foundation that will fund the creation of a network of educators committed to promoting the use of Big Data in undergraduate biology curriculum.

Kaitlin Bonner

As the principal investigator on the grant, Bonner is working with a team of professors, researchers, and education experts to create a Research Coordination Network that will raise awareness of the large datasets and data-centric teaching modules available to educators for use in the classroom.  In addition, the team will work to develop an online support system for professors interested in incorporating biology research data in their curriculum, and create a community of fellows who can provide key perspectives on the initiative. The team will focus specifically on ecology related datasets and teaching modules to start, with the goal of broadening the scope of the project to include all biology-related datasets.

The paradigm shift comes at a moment when large datasets are becoming more available to professors through openly-licensed platforms. Bonner said this gives professors the opportunity to help students increase quantitative literacy and that learning to interpret Big Data and make inferences about graphs and figures ultimately develops stronger critical thinking skills. As a field, Bonner said ecology lends itself particularly well to data-centric curriculum because of the large amount of data readily available to professors. In the classroom, that might mean students work with datasets related to climatic changes, species migration patterns, population and community changes, species richness, and species demographics.

“Having students work directly with this data allows us to create a personalized and hands-on experience,” Bonner said. “And we know that they are more likely to learn the concepts when they can directly manipulate the material.”

The one-year grant will allow Bonner and her colleagues to create an online community of professors who can share best practices in working with material and modules with others. Through the community, the team hopes to remove some of the barriers—including lack of awareness and time—that prevent the wide-scale adoption of this teaching method.

“A major barrier is time,” she explained. “Beyond taking the material and adapting it for a classroom, we don’t know how much time it would take for a professor to then share out their experiences and make it readable for someone else to pick up and use.”

The solution: a social media-like platform for professors who use—or would like to use—biology research data in the classroom. Bonner envisions a virtual space where professors can share what they’ve done, comment on other work, and mentor each other through the process. The new network will be modeled in part after the Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis (QUBES), an existing NSF-funded faculty mentoring network centered on quantitative approaches to biology teaching.

“We’re hoping to create an easily accessible space where people can seek out, use, adapt, modify, and share resources,” Bonner said, noting that one of the major goals of the grant is to close the gap between adapting/modifying and sharing data-centric teaching resources.

In addition to Bonner, co-principal investigators on the grant include Dr. Arietta Fleming-Davies, assistant professor, University of San Diego; Dr. Kristine Grayson, assistant professor, University of Richmond; and Dr. Ben Wu, professor and presidential professor for teaching excellence, Texas A&M University.

Over the course of the year, they will work with a steering committee representing leading scholars in the fields of information science and open educational resources, biology education pedagogy, quantitative approaches to teaching, and faculty development. Members of the committee include Dr. Deborah Allen, professor and director, Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education, University of Delaware; Dr. Ahrash Bissell, director of strategic partnerships, Monterey Institute for Technology and Education; Dr. Sam Donovan, lecturer, University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Alison Hale, program manager for science and research, Carnegie Museum of Natural History; Dr. Bryan Heidorn, director, School of Information Resources and Library Science, University of Arizona; and Teresa Mourad, director of education and diversity programs, Ecological Society of America.

The grant was obtained in collaboration with Fisher’s Office of Sponsored Research.

Funding for this Program was provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Biological Sciences (CFDA# 47.074) under award number 1730122.