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One of the most significant problems in the US today is the continuing decline in science literacy. As part of a program to address this problem, I have begun teaching biology to non-majors. This not only offers a small step in improving scientific understanding among non-scientists, but it also provides a student-learning laboratory in which to investigate the issues that prove difficult for students, and to identify methods to overcome these difficulties. I have specifically chosen to publish many of my findings in the National Science Teachersí Associationís (NSTA) publication, The Science Teacher, which is widely read by K-12 teachers.
I am also developing the Office of Science Outreach for the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education for the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, in an effort to strengthen the universityís role in, and impact on, science teaching at K-16 levels. This includes establishing partnerships with local school systems and with museums, and developing innovative methods for making science more interesting and accessible to students (for example, partnering with the Indiana State Police Criminal Investigation Laboratory, to bring forensics methods into classrooms).
The most significant impacts have come from:
- The Summer Research Institute.
Begun in 2003 with a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, this professional development workshop builds on the work of Middendorf and Pace in the Freshman Learning Program here at IU. Traditional faculty professional development programs, particularly for K-12 teachers, assume that if students are not learning well, it must be because the teachers donít know the subject. We use a different model, which recognizes that teachers may know the subject too well, and therefore teach using diagrams, analogies, and phrasing that students interpret differently. The challenge is to figure out how experts think about the topic, vs how novices think about it, and then develop teaching strategies that can move students into the thinking processes used by experts. Surprisingly frequently, the tried-and-true teaching strategies that we all use fail to do this. The model developed by Middendorf and Pace succeeds admirably. (see Soper,  Inquiry Learning and Teaching: What is it really about? Hoosier Science Teacher 32: 62-64.)
- Math/Science Partnership with the Southern Indiana Education Center
Funded by the No Child Left Behind Act, the Math/Science Partnerships bring together school systems and scientists or mathematicians to improve student learning. In Indiana, the block grants are distributed among projects working with elementary schools. In this project, with the SIEC, we are working with 8 elementary schools, from Bedford to Evansville. This project has led to the next one:
- Revision of Existing Teaching Resources, and Construction of New Materials--Elementary Version
Elementary science teaching in the US typically follows a pattern of (1) students exploring materials, (2) students recording their observations in science notebooks, and (3) the teacher telling them what they learned. Some of the newer kit-based curricula cast this as inquiry, and as investigations, but the process is much the same. What is missing is the essence of science: looking at the data, figuring out what it tells us, and thereby discovering the fundamental scientific principles. The reason that the essence of science is missing is described eloquently in Taking Science to School (National Academy Press, 2007). Elementary science teaching strategies are based on Piagetan conception of children as linear-concrete thinkers, incapable analyzing data and developing alternative hypotheses to explain it. More recent research shows that children are quite capable of the latter type of reasoning. For example:
4-year old: Dad, do fish lie on their sides on top of the water when theyíre tired?
Dad: No, I donít know of any that do.
4-year old: My goldfish died! [sob]
If a 4-year old can observe his goldfish lying on top of the water, formulate two alternative hypotheses to explain it, and perform an investigation (asking Dad) to distinguish between these two alternatives, and only then grieve for his pet, then older children in elementary school can certainly do so. We need to re-think elementary science education in a serious way. I have begun compiling lesson plans that teach science more scientifically on the Science Outreach website.
- Revision of Existing Teaching Resources, and Construction of New Materials--High School Version
The Science Outreach website also contains links to a number of teaching strategies that I have developed for my own non-majors biology classes, or for high school science teachers. Some are better than others. One teacher who used the Montana Fossils lesson, and followed up with some of the extensions I suggested, reported that parents called her and asked if they could sit in on her class, and see if this evolution stuff is really true after all. This tells us something: teaching science as reasoning from data is not only more accurate, but it has the potential to make controversial topics non-controversial. Itís no longer evolution vs creation, but a question of how to interpret the data that we find when we actually go out into the world and look at it.
An urgent need, both in outreach and in classroom innovation, is effective research methodologies to determine which methods are effective, and which are not. Only effective methods should be pursued and propagated. For both research, and implementation of research findings, it is essential to form close collaborations not only with fellow scientists, but also with our colleagues in the School of Education. There are many research opportunities for students interested in student learning.
The Heat Shock System
Bonner, J. J., Chen, D., Storey, K., Tushan, M., and Lea, K. 2000. Structural analysis of yeast HSF by site-specific crosslinking. J. Mol. Biol. 302: 581-591.
Bonner, J. J., Carlson, T., Fackenthal, D. L., Paddock, D., Storey, K., and Lea, K. 2000. Complex regulation of the yeast heat shock transcription factor. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 11: 1739-1751.
Lee, S., Carlson, T., Christian, N., Lea, K., Kedzie, J., Reilly, J. P., and Bonner, J. J. 2000. The yeast heat shock transcription factor changes conformation in response to superoxide and temperature. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 11: 1753-1764.
Torres, PA.G. and J.J.Bonner. 1995. Genetic identification of the site of DNA contact of the yeast heat shock transcription factor. Mol. Cell. Biol. 15:5063-5070
Lotter, C., Harwood, W.S., and Bonner, J.J. (2007) The Influence of Core Teaching Conceptions on Teachers’ Use of Inquiry Teaching Practices. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. In Press
Lotter, C., Harwood, W.S., and Bonner, J.J. (2006) Overcoming a Learning Bottleneck: Inquiry Professional Development for Secondary Science Teachers. Journal of Science Teacher Education. 17: 185-216.
Bonner, J. J. (2004) The Biology of Food. The Science Teacher. Oct. 2004: 30-34.
Bonner, J. J., Lotter, C., and Harwood, W. S. (2004) Improving Student Learning, One Bottleneck at a Time. The Science Teacher. Dec. 2004: 26-29.