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Doing the Math

Anita Schuchardt observed the effectiveness of integrating STEM disciplines as a high school science teacher. Now, the new BTL faculty member wants to show why concept-based learning works.

Anita Schuchardt

Anita Schuchardt knows that teaching biology by emphasizing concepts and using math to unlock student understanding of biological processes works. She recently joined the Department of Biology Teaching and Learning with an eye to adding to our understanding of eactly why it works.

Schuchardt’s path to becoming a biology education innovator began after completing a doctorate in genetics and conducting post-doc research on how nerves grow in the spinal cord at Columbia University. Once her post-doc appointment wrapped up, she switched gears and headed back into the classroom. She moved to Pittsburgh and into a high school teaching position where she developed a keen interest in how students learn science.

“They weren’t being properly prepared, they were being taught discrete topics that are disconnected from each other,” says Schuchardt. “If someone is studying genetics related to cancer, for example, they will need to also understand the chemical reactions related to the phenomenon. You can’t just memorize biology terms. You have to understand the ‘why’ of what’s going on.”

Schuchardt knew the school's approach to teaching biology wasn't working, but her pedagogical epiphany came the next year teaching ninth grade physics. The curriculum emphasized concepts over formulas and figures. Students gathered and interpreted data and drew conclusions. They learned through visuals, discussion and, yes, mathematical equations representing ideas about the phenomenon they were studying. That was her ah-ha moment.

“This is the way we should be teaching biology,” thought Schuchardt.

To test her theory, she developed a modeling course in biology for high school juniors and seniors in which they did experiments, gathered data and drew conclusions they then had to represent in multiple ways. “I believed that this data-based process would increase student understanding of the concepts and help increase their scientific reasoning skills,” she says. And it worked. “But I only had a limited theory about why it worked. It became obvious if I was going to innovate in science education I would need to prove that this type of education works and figure out why,” she says.

Schuchardt enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh and pursued a Ph.D. in learning sciences and policy. “You have to understand policy to understand how to change the education system,” she says.

Through her research, Schuchardt found that when students were asked to develop mathematical equations to explain biological processes, such as inheritance, there was a five-fold improvement in understanding of the mechanism and a four-fold improvement in their ability to solve complex problems involving two or more genes.

Although lessons included hands-on manipulation of objects—paper cut-outs to represent genes from eggs and sperm, for example— after interviewing students as they solved mathematical problems in genetics, Schuchardt became convinced that mathematical modeling played a key role in helping students fully grasp the subject. “Math increased the students’ understanding and their ability to assess more complex problems, to connect the dots,” she says.

Why does it work? Schuchardt came to BTL to investigate this very question. “BTL is the perfect marriage of biology and education science,” she says. “Here I get to put both parts of myself—researcher and educator—back together.” - Monique Dubos

October, 2016