EAGER: Assessing Impacts on Student Learning in Mathematics from Inclusion of Biological, Real-World Examples
Dr. Pamela Bishop, NISER Director - Principal Investigator
Dr. Louis Gross, NIMBioS Director - Co-Principal Investigator
Dr. Suzanne Lenhart, NIMBioS Associate Director for Education and Outreach - Co-Principal Investigator
Kelly Sturner, NIMBioS Education and Outreach Coordinator - Co-Principal Investigator , - - current affiliation - Argonne National Laboratory - Learning Laboratory (
Dr. Robin Taylor, Project Postdoctoral Fellow , - - current affiliation - Principal and Senior Evaluator, RTRES Consulting
Project Outline and Objectives:
Undergraduate quantitative educators have for many years been illustrating mathematical concepts using biological examples. Many major reports on mathematics education suggest that students are more likely to understand and be able to apply quantitative concepts when taught these in a real-world context. Much of the quantitative life science education community has followed this route. Somewhat surprisingly though, evidence for the effectiveness of learning quantitative concepts through concrete examples over abstract methods is mostly anecdotal. There have been very few studies investigating learning gains in mathematics arising from the use of scientific examples, and some studies provide evidence that the use of examples actually reduces student's comprehension of general mathematical concepts. Quantitative biology educators may have personal experiences which would informally indicate that students "get it" when the mathematics is related to something about which they have some intuition, so the mathematics then more readily relates to the students mental models for the world. However there is essentially no educational research that affirms this.
A first step towards evaluating the potential impact of biological examples on mathematics comprehension is to develop a robust assessment tool designed for college-level math concepts. The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop such an instrument. The focus is on concepts from calculus, since this is a topic that virtually every undergraduate biology program in the US requires. An objective for this instrument is to be able to compare and constrast alternative modes of instruction in calculus for life science students, those with extensive biological examples as are used in many "biocalculus" courses, and standard calculus for science students that is also often taken by life science students in some programs. As it is applied, the approach used to develop this instrument (called the BioCalculus Assessment (BCA) could serve as a model to measure the effect of using real-world interdisciplinary examples from other areas of science on enhancing mathematical comprehension in undergraduates.
A description of the process by which the BCA was developed, considered by a large number of experts in quantitative biology education, and iteratively applied, modified and used in several courses is provided in the paper linked below.
Taylor, Robin T., Pamela R. Bishop, Suzanne Lenhart, Louis J. Gross, and Kelly Sturner. 2020. Development of the BioCalculus Assessment (BCA) (link)
Presentations about the project:
Access to the BCA:
The BioCalculus Assessment is available to researchers and educators who wish to utilize it in alignment with the objectives for which it was developed. It is provided at no charge but we request that anyone who utilizes it acknowledge the efforts of the developers by referencing the above published paper and noting that its development was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation through Award DUE 1544375 to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Those wishing to obtain the instrument should provide the information in the below paragraph, which requests basic information about the requesting individual, their institution and the intended use. Upon receipt of this, the developers will consider the request and respond appropriately. Questions should be addressed to Dr. Suzanne Lenhart, whose contact information can be obtained through her web page linked above.
To obtain the BCA send the following information by email to Dr. Suzanne Lenhart (slenhart at utk.edu): email address, your name, your affiliation (Institution, Department and webpage), a contact phone number in case there are questions, and your intended use of the BCA instument (e.g. for use in a particular course or set of courses, for comparison to other assessments, etc.). Please give us two weeks to respond.