Problem Spaces: Supporting Student Inquiry Using Online Data

Return to search results | New search

Title of Abstract: Problem Spaces: Supporting Student Inquiry Using Online Data

Name of Author: Sam Donovan
Author Company or Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Author Title: Research Associate Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Bioinformatics, Ecology and Environmental Biology, Evolutionary Biology, General Biology
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Material Development
Keywords: data, research, bioinformatics, inquiry, analysis

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Problem Spaces were developed as an alternative to concept-centric instruction. They are designed to provide access to engaging and relevant biological phenomena that can be collaboratively investigated using publicly available research data and analysis tools. Problem Spaces are community driven curricula, that is, faculty can extend and modify the material for use in a wide range of teaching contexts and with diverse audiences. Problem Spaces are also open curricula that change with the science. The use of online links automatically incorporates new data, theory, tool modifications, and techniques. The Problem Space was developed as a model that supports learning science by doing science. In this context, the questions and investigations developed through the exploration of biological phenomena drive the problem solver to learn biological principles and its practice in the context of authentic learning.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: In addition to extensive use in classrooms, Problem Spaces have been used effectively in faculty development workshops to engage faculty participants in reconsidering their assumptions about teaching and learning biology. We have found that activities that engage faculty as problem solvers and scientists remind them why they initially got excited about science. We use Problem Spaces to capture faculty attention and model the type of learning environment that could transform their classrooms.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We gauge our success based on faculty feedback from workshops and reports of how they have used Problem Space materials and strategies with students.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: There are over a dozen Problem Spaces available and they have been used by thousands of students and faculty in classroom and professional development settings ( Several papers have been published including one research science project started in a Problem Space and a handful that address educational audiences. One notable impact of the Problem Space model on the undergraduate biology education community lies in promoting the use of data in classrooms. Several recent NSF funded projects (TUES, NSDL & RCN) have built on the Problem Space model when designing their curriculum. The TUES grant to the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, Bringing a Field Station in the classroom, the Science Collaboratory Project, Cyberleanring at Community Colleges (C3), and the recently funded Data Discovery RCN out of Michigan State University. The Problem Space model has also influenced efforts by scientists, data providers, and professional societies to promote the use of research data in undergraduate biology education. The DryadLab project brought together scientists, science educators, and informatics specialists to create open curriculum models using research data stored in the Dryad data repository. The Ecological Society of American in conjunction with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology adapted features of Problem Spaces in their Data in the Classrooms project. Finally, Kristin Jenkins and I presented a half-day symposium on the use of large datasets in classrooms at the 2012 Society for the Study of Evolution meeting (

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The recent attention to engaging students with research data is providing Problem Spaces with a new focus. The emergence of scientific data literacy as a means for developing a technically sophisticated workforce and the ongoing attention for the development of quantitative and computational biology skills provide new opportunities for the application of the Problem Space model. The BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium (the organizational home for Problem Spaces) has long encouraged faculty to bridge science and education by engaging students in scientific problem solving. However, sustaining communities of faculty scholarship is especially challenging when the faculty members returns to their institution and is often isolated. We see potential in Vision and Change outreach as a networking mechanism to support these communities

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Some of the more mature Problem Spaces have been collected and disseminated through . Other projects, including a large number of workshop participant generated materials are available at . We plan to prepare a more synthetic description of the instructional philosophy that guides Problem Spaces for publication.

Acknowledgements: The Problem Space curriculum model evolved as part of a NSF funded CCLI National Dissemination project titled BEDROCK Bioinformatics Education Dissemination. John R. Jungck was the PI of that project. Over time, the model of a Problem Space has been deeply integrated into a wide range of projects associated with the BIOQUST Curriculum Consortium. Ethel Stanley, Stacey Kiser, Tony Weisstein, Kristin Jenkins and many, many others have made significant contributions to this project.