Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Evolution 2014: Day 4

Posted 24 Jun 2014 / 0

header_109-640px No smoking guns in the convention center please

Tuesday was a busy day for me, with a pair of Education sessions in the morning, including the one containing my own talk. Thus far I have been really impressed with the education-related sessions available at Evolution 2014. Almost all of the sessions that I have attended have included really valuable, ready-to-use ideas and tools. Today’s talks were the “loose bits”: presentations by those of us not involved in the organized workshops and symposia of the past days.

Surprisingly, there were a lot of similarities and connections among most of the talks presented during these two morning sessions. A major theme was how to increase acceptance of evolutionary theory among the undergraduates that we teach. I became much more familiar with an assessment that I have only really heard of in passing, the Measure of Acceptance of the Theory of Evolution (MATE). For many of the educators presenting today, improving the dismally-low MATE scores of our students is a major goal of our teaching and outreach work. Leslie Rissler of the University of Alabama discussed her work assessing the relative roles of education and religiosity in influencing her students’ scores on the MATE. Alabama is just a really interesting cultural location, with 42% of students attending the University of Alabama self-reporting as young earth creationists. Rissler used the MATE and an attitude survey to show that religiosity swamps educational experience when it comes to increasing students’ acceptance of evolution; having taken coursework in evolution had minimal effects on the MATE scores of students who regularly attend religious services. She showed work done by other researchers suggesting that the quality of state science standards correlates with orthodox religiosity, battering the hope that better K through 12 education might increase acceptance of evolutionary theory. Matthew Rowe had a slightly different take on the MATE. He showed how a Foundations in Science course given at Sam Houston University had improved the critical thinking skills and MATE scores of his students. He also discussed how validation issues might make most educational researchers question his results, although I could not follow the technical issues he was discussing. Alita Burmeister shared some of the goals of Rissler and Rowe, but in a more specific arena: as a trained microbiologist, Burmeister was concerned about both attitudes and content knowledge attainment in microbiology courses. As she presented it, microbiological courses discuss many phenomena that offer the opportunity to teach evolutionary concepts but infrequently make that connection. Using a Microbial Genetics course at Michigan State University as an example, she discussed how important concepts such as mutation, inheritance, and selection are learned but never integrated to allow students to better understand the process of evolution. In a pilot study she added some evolutionary teaching to the course and to one of its lab sections. Interestingly, students’ attitudes about the importance of understanding evolution in the context of microbiology improved even as their content knowledge of evolutionary biology did not.

If your goal is to improve the quality of evolutionary education you provide, there were plenty of nice talks at this session. Ajna Rivera discussed how she is integrating inquiry-based learning into her evolution course at University of the Pacific. She talked about a variety of in-class activities and the use of case studies that allowed her to unify different components of the curriculum with a particular phenomenon (for example, the evolution of flight). Norman Johnson discussed how a very simple fact — that at some loci, particular humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than they are to other humans — can be used to challenge students to better understand how species evolve. Such trans-specific polymorphisms can help students see that populations and not pure lineages evolve, that recently-diverged populations can share similar patterns of polymorphism inherited from a common ancestor, and that single-gene thinking can lead to erroneous conclusions about the connection between genotype and phenotype. Pre-med education is notoriously free of evolutionary biology, but that is due to change: in coming years, about 20% of the MCAT is due to address content related to evolutionary biology, so a lot of biology departments are going to have to reconfigure how they educate pre-medical students. Jane Indorf presented a resource in development that effort; the NEXUS project is involves four research universities, each of which is working on developing case studies that can be used to increase student understanding of evolutionary concepts. Designed to be both teaching and assessment tools, these modules use real-life situations to support student-centered lessons. Denise Pope from SimBio presented some really interesting ways that assessment can be used to teach. SimBio has developed two teaching tools, LabLibs and WordBytes, which bridge the gap between multiple choice questions and open-ended essay questions. I briefly discussed WordBytes in my post on Friday’s education workshop; if they end up working well they seem like really valuable ways of allowing students to construct their way to a correct answer. LabLibs are a bit less innovative: they are essentially multiple fill-in-the-blanks, which really only provides the advantage of more possible answers. It will be interesting to see how these sort of tools will develop in the coming years. If algorithms can give meaningful feedback to meaningful student work, the job of being a professor will get a lot more creative and a lot less tedious. If these assessment turn out to actually teach students… well that does call into question the future role of the professoriate.

If students do not gain a basic understanding and appreciation of evolutionary biology in primary and secondary school, our jobs are pretty difficult once they reach us in higher education. Jory Weintraub spoke about the Darwin Day Roadshow, a really cool program that brings a customized educational program to primary or secondary schools on the birthday of Charles Darwin. The program has specialized in reaching schools that do not receive high-quality education in evolutionary biology — including a tribal school, a hospital school, a prison school, and several religious schools — with a day-long event aimed specifically at the students that the Roadshow visits. Teachers have to apply after getting approval from their supervisors, which assures that the Roadshow only visits where it is wanted and supported. This is an incredibly valuable program, and I wonder why it would be necessary to limit these activities to the day of Darwin’s birth.

Another way to productively impact primary and secondary school evolution education is to put relevant and accessible teaching tools into the hands of teachers. Becky Fuller described her experiences designing and delivering workshops for Illinois teachers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She cited surveys that had shown that a good 60% of biology teachers represent what she called “the cautious middle”: teachers who believe that teaching evolution is important but want to avoid sparking controversy in their school districts. Fuller’s goal was to empower these teachers by providing them with lesson plans and teaching ideas. She reported that her workshops have been successful, although they may not yet be reaching the cautious middle because the more staunch evolution advocates tend to be the most motivated to seek out such workshops. She also reported something that I think is key: teachers want good lessons that are ready to go “out of the box”. With a great variety of demands on their time, middle and high school science teachers need to be handed activities that are fully developed, aligned with standards, and classroom tested.

Pretty Flowers Outside the Raleigh Convention Center

By the time the end of any conference rolls around, most of us participants are pretty worn out. Evolution 2014 is not the longest conference, but it is pretty packed. So you feel a little bad for those sessions scheduled for the final afternoon of the conference. I decided to check out a few of the talks in the SSE Symposium “Seeing the forest for the trees: the contributions of synthesis to evolutionary science”. This symposium was a fitting finale for this conference, which was organized in large part by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), which is in its final year of funding. Allen Rodrigo, NESCent’s director, began the symposium by explaining how synthesis centers can breed innovative research by providing the financial support, physical space, and social environment that is often lacking in research universities and other centers of scientific inquiry. His most important point was that traditional research centers — most prominently research universities — fail to provide scientists with an atmosphere in which failure is acceptable. This leaves most scientists far too risk-averse to pursue truly innovative directions. In Rodrigo’s vision, synthesis centers can serve as research incubators when they assume most of the risk of failure associated with daring inquiry. Hearing Rodrigo’s description of how NESCent seeded innovative research, I was saddened by the impending demise of NESCent (and more than a bit regretful that I have failed to get involved in any of its activities).

The symposium featured a diverse collection of talks by some of the “NESCent All-Stars”: members of working groups that had been particularly successful and productive. Paul Harnik described what seems to have been a massive effort to integrate data on historical extinction patterns of extinction with predicted patterns of both climate change and direct human impacts. The resulting model allowed his working group to better understand where and when extinction rates are most likely to be greatest. Carlos Andrés Botero described some fascinating modeling work that used individual-based approaches to understand the evolution of the reaction norm, yielding insights into the how plasticity evolves. Erika Edwards talked about how recent fossil discoveries had changed the way we understand the role of carbon dioxide fluctuations in bringing about the dominance of C4 plants on grasslands; finding fossilized grasses in dinosaur dung has led to the realization that C4 plants evolved (over 100 times independent!) well before they came to be dominant. Stephen Stearns discussed the very profound impacts of a NESCent working group focused on infusing evolutionary thinking into medical education; in part due to this groups’ work, 20% of the 2015 MCAT will be comprised of evolution-related questions. Among many projects undertaken by the group, I found the concerted curation of several wikipedia sites dedicated to evolutionary medicine topics to be most interesting.

Raleigh Convention Center

A Major Post, Conferences, Society for the Study of Evolution

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