Transforming science education through research-driven innovation

BSCS Paper Published in Science: Humane Genomics Education Can Reduce Racism

A rigorous line of research at BSCS Science Learning shows genomics education can either promote or counteract racist and sexist beliefs during adolescence. Dr. Brian Donovan and his research team have published their latest insights in the February 23 issue of Science

The new paper is entitled: “Humane Genomics Education Can Reduce Racism.” It is authored by Brian M. Donovan, Monica Weindling, Jamie Amemiya, Brae Salazar, Dennis Lee, Awais Syed, Molly Stuhlsatz, and Jeffrey Snowden.

About the Study

This paper reports the findings of a randomized trial where we explore what happens when high school biology classrooms move beyond the basics of genetics to tackle the complexity of inheritance for the purpose of refuting genetic essentialist views about race. Genetic essentialism is the belief that certain races or genders are superior to others because of their genes. It’s biologically inaccurate and could lead to stereotyping and discrimination. 

Key Findings

  • When biology teachers move their instruction beyond basic Mendelian genetics to tackle the complexity of inheritance and refute essentialism, it causes
    • an increase in students’ genomics knowledge,
    • a decrease in students’ racial biases, and
    • an increase in students’ beliefs that racism is a real problem to be addressed.
  • Our more complex and scientifically accurate Humane Genomics instruction did not cause students to experience greater frustration, anxiety, or confusion compared to basic Mendelian genetics.
  • Teachers are ready to effectively implement the curriculum in their classrooms with 40 hours of professional development via an online platform.

Our findings can be generalized to high schools in 20 US states and replicated at the undergraduate level. 

Implications of These Findings 

We need to move beyond the basics of genetics and instead teach students about the complexity of inheritance for the purpose of refuting naïve and biologically inaccurate essentialist beliefs. Moving beyond the basics and toward this more accurate view of human inheritance can help create a more genetically literate and socially accepting society.

A rigorous line of research at BSCS Science Learning shows genomics education can either promote or counteract racist and sexist beliefs during adolescence. Dr. Brian Donovan and his research team have published their latest insights in the February 23 issue of Science

The new paper is entitled “Sex and Gender Essentialism in Textbooks.” It is authored by Brian M. Donovan, Awais Syed, Sophie H. Arnold, Dennis Lee, Monica Weindling, Molly A. M. Stuhlsatz, Catherine Riegle-Crumb, and Andrei Cimpian.

About the Study

This paper reports the findings of a quantitative content analysis of six biology textbooks that are used in two-thirds of introductory biology courses in US high schools. We analyzed how sex and gender were described in the genetics chapters of those textbooks. 

Key Findings

Biology textbooks are failing to communicate the scientific consensus on sex and gender. Instead, they are communicating biologically inaccurate information that could lead to gender stereotyping and discrimination.

We discovered four consistent issues: 

  • Textbooks described females as biologically uniform and males as biologically uniform even though the scientific reality is that individuals within each sex tend to be biologically diverse. 
  • Textbooks described the similarities and differences across males and females at equal frequencies, even though the scientific reality is that sex groups tend to overlap tremendously on most biological traits. 
  • Textbooks explained variation within sexes and differences between sexes using only genetic factors, instead of introducing students to the more accurate idea that genes tend to interact with the environment to influence human trait variation. 
  • Textbooks failed to define and distinguish between the concepts of sex and gender as many biologists do. This is a problem because research suggests that when people conflate sex and gender, it contributes to gender stereotyping.

Overall, the language used to describe sex and gender is consistent with essentialist messages. Genetic essentialism is the belief that certain races or genders are superior to others because of their genes. These are biologically inaccurate, overly simplified lay views that are at odds with the scientific consensus on sex and gender. And they have no place in biology curricula. 

Implications of These Findings 

BSCS views these findings as an important call to action for curriculum developers–including BSCS. Donovan et al.’s study shows that textbook authors are overdue to revise our genetics materials to align them with current science. Instructional materials need to communicate clearly that the ranges of differences among humans of the same sex are far greater than the differences between the sexes and that the overlap in trait values across females and males is much greater than the differences between them. Instead of focusing exclusively on genes as the most important causal factor of traits, genetics lessons should be helping students to understand the role of the environment and gene-environment interactions in the development of human traits. Finally, textbooks should help students develop understanding of the important differences between gender and sex that the biological and social sciences have identified.  

One of BSCS’s textbooks was included in the study and was found to contain many of the omissions, vague wordings, and inaccuracies that contribute to essentialist thinking that Donovan et al. found across the sample of high school textbooks. When we set out to create our newest high school biology textbook a few years ago, we committed to producing a program that would avoid the pitfalls that can lead students to maintain or develop essentialist ideas. While we didn’t have the findings of their study at the time, we did have access to the findings that their study was based on that attributes of textbooks can contribute to essentialist thinking. Based on these findings, we designed the genetics instruction in BSCS Biology: Understanding for Life to go beyond the basics of genetics to tackle the full complexity of gene and environment interaction. We also chose language carefully to adhere to current science regarding gender versus sex. What we learned through that process is that it is not particularly difficult or expensive to bring high school-level genetics instruction into compliance with the findings underlying Donovan et al.’s recent study and that teachers by and large welcome the changes when they understand the rationale. We hope our work on BSCS Biology: Understanding for Life can serve as an example to other biology textbook authors.

Biden-Harris Administration Announces $277 Million In Education Innovation and Research Grants to Help Address Academic Recovery

By: [email protected]

As part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s ongoing work to address academic recovery, including supporting student success in math and reading, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) today announced $277 million in new grant awards to advance educational equity and innovation through the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant program. State-administered test scores from the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years show some early signs of rebounding from the major disruptions of the pandemic, but not enough are back to pre-pandemic levels—and the recovery has been uneven—with the students most impacted still furthest behind. We have a long way to go, especially for communities and students who have been exposed to longstanding inequality. These new grant awards can help us get there with $90.3 million for STEM, $87.2 million for social emotional well-being, including student engagement, and $76.5 million for projects in rural areas.

“This $277 million in grant awards from the Biden-Harris Administration will fund some of the nation’s most promising efforts to raise the bar for academic recovery, excellence, and equity in education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “I am especially excited to have the Department of Education support innovative efforts across the country to enhance literacy, math, and STEM instruction broadly in underserved communities and set the stage for young people to succeed, as well as learn how to address real-world problems in today’s most cutting-edge fields. All of this year’s grantees are pioneering exciting, evidence-based strategies to close opportunity gaps and provide young people with the engaging and impactful learning experiences they deserve so that they can achieve at high levels.”

The EIR programs help create, implement, replicate, and expand entrepreneurial, evidence-based innovations to improve outcomes for historically underserved learners and to rigorously evaluate such innovations. The EIR grants have been awarded to 45 grantees to advance educational innovation, research, and develop new solutions to addressing persistent educational opportunity gaps for students who have been historically underserved.

These awards are announced as…

Read the full press release.

By: Nick Sullivan, The Gazette

A Colorado Springs-based national textbook organization received a first-of-a-kind accolade for its newly released biology program.

Curriculum developed by BSCS Science Learning, a center for research and development in science education, is the first and only high school science program to receive all-green ratings from nonprofit instructional reviewer EdReports. The ratings indicate BSCS meets EdReports’ highest quality standards across the board in three areas: coherence and scope, usability and alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards and a curriculum standard adopted by 20 states and the District of Columbia.

“Districts and states are reviewing curriculum materials more carefully than I think they did historically. A lot of schools and districts don’t have the resources to conduct these thorough reviews themselves, so they rely on EdReports and other organizations to do so,” BSCS Executive Director Daniel Edelson said. “EdReports is an acknowledgement that we succeeded in what we set out to do. … It’s going to be very powerful in getting these materials into the hands of teachers and students.”

The program, titled BSCS Biology: Understanding for Life, marks a shift from the traditional teaching approach, said instructional material developers Cindy Gay and Lindsey Mohan.

Rather than framing lessons around teacher lectures and memorization, BSCS begins each unit by investigating a current real-world phenomenon. Why, for example, do antibiotics sometimes not work in treating infections?

Students ask questions and lead the discussion on why these sorts of events occur, and through the course of investigation they discover concepts of natural selection at play in bacteria. Students learn not just the words and definitions attached to biology, but also how to talk about these concepts and apply them to their daily lives.

“We move away from a culture of one right answer,” said Gay, BSCS senior science educator. “If you were a really good student in a traditional classroom, and you were used to the teacher telling what you needed to know, and you could memorize and spit it back, and suddenly the teacher’s not giving you the answer anymore, and you’re having to figure out and revise your thinking, that could potentially be really uncomfortable for you.”

“After formal schooling, you’re never going to be asked to read a textbook and memorize definitions again. That’s not a useful skill to have in your life,” added Mohan, the project director for the program’s development. “But you are going to need to have conversations with your doctor. You are going to be prescribed antibiotics, and you are going to need to understand how and why you need to take those antibiotics.”

The program pulled input from 60 experts across a range of specialties, from educators to doctors to experts on inclusive language and imagery. BSCS began field testing its work in the spring of 2020, when COVID threw a wrench into its collaborative and discussion-based method by forcing classes online.

Still, the developers found enough teachers, schools and districts interested in testing out their new program and pushed forward. Student voice was critical, too, as they provided feedback as to which of their key questions were left unanswered and which real-world examples most caught their eye.

Engaging biology courses are critical for all students regardless of their post-secondary aspirations, Edelson said. Traditional science education has failed in that it focused primarily on preparing students for college and careers while undervaluing its use in their personal lives. BSCS considers both, he said.

“We are facing challenges in our society that require scientific understanding, and we have a lot of misinformation circulating currently,” Edelson said. “People need to be informed both for decisions they make in their personal lives and decisions they make in their civic lives.”

Dani Booth, a science teacher who teaches emerging bilinguals at Colorado’s Steamboat High School, said the program’s accessible approach to contemporary issues embeds literacy strategies for students who are learning English as a secondary language and those who read below their grade level. Her students are communicating about school topics in ways she has never seen before, she said, and synthesizing information in other subjects.

“On this little planet, our problems are increasingly complex. Our resources are finite, and the challenges we face are getting bigger and bigger all the time, and we often seem more and more divided about solving these problems and making decisions. The green light from EdReports confirms the path this program is taking in order to give students the skills and understanding they need to tackle these solutions,” Gay said. “It gives me huge hope for the future of these problems.”

The Curse of Mendel

Released on: December 19, 2022

Bad Blood is a BBC series that traces the development of the eugenics movement from the United Kingdom to the United States, to Nazi Germany. It was written and produced by Adam Rutherford and Ilan Goodman. In episode 5, “The Curse of Mendel,” BSCS Senior Research Scientist Brian Donovan discusses how Mendelian genetics education unwittingly plays into eugenic thinking and what genetics educators can do about this problem. Listen to the episode.

Can This Denver Teacher Make Biology Class More Inclusive?

Samuel Long has a history of working for equity for LGBTQ students and staff in education. His work on gender inclusive biology carries on that tradition.

By: Sarah Vitak

Samuel Long had always loved science. But in 2015, when he began his career as a high school biology teacher at DSST Stapleton High School (now called DSST Montview High School), he started to notice details in the curriculum that didn’t sit right with him. Classroom materials never defined the difference between sex and gender, for example, and they consistently used words like “male” and “female” without much nuance. “Readings called testosterone a ‘male hormone’ even though it plays a role in every person’s development,” Long says.

At first, Long didn’t say anything. This was how biology had been taught for a long time, after all, and he figured students wouldn’t be interested in digging deeper into research about the complexities of gender and sex.

But then, during one lesson, a reading referred to intersex chromosomal arrangements—sex chromosomes other than XX or XY—as “disorders of sexual development.” The phrasing, while accepted in some medical literature, obscured the robust debate being had amongst researchers, doctors, and advocates about the proper way to classify members of the intersex community. Many argue that the phrase “disorder” carries a negative connotation and obscures the fact that some intersex people live perfectly happy and healthy lives. Others point out that certain chromosomal variations do lead to health consequences, like short stature and heart defects associated with Turner syndrome (when a female is missing some or all of an X chromosome).

Long didn’t want to gloss over those conversations or risk alienating or invalidating his intersex and transgender students, including those who were not yet out. So, one day in 2015, he began class by telling students that sex and gender are separate, and that both can be on a spectrum. He was nervous, but the class was unfazed.

“I remember that day was the first time I had ever heard about chromosomes as they really are,” says Max Gregg, then a student in Long’s class. “There is all of this complication. And you can actually wind up having an unusually high number of sex chromosomes and have a completely normal and human life.”

And thus, an initiative to change how biology is taught was born.

Gender Inclusive Biology

The high school biology curriculum most teachers and schools use still takes a highly binary approach to sex, gender, and sexuality, even though scientists are learning more about how complex these topics can be. Students themselves, Long says, can undoubtedly see the shades and colors of sex, gender, and sexuality all around them.

Teaching biology the traditional way can leave students who aren’t straight or cisgender confused, isolated, disenfranchised, and disinterested in engaging in the classroom, Long says. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN)’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, “LGBT high school seniors were more likely to be interested in studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) in college if their relevant high school classes had included positive LGBT content (35.8% vs. 18.5%).” The report also noted that LGBT students at schools with inclusive curricula were less likely by about half to have missed school in the past month and felt more connected to the school community.

Reading materials that emphasize that the male/female binary is rooted in biology can lead to more prejudice against trans people, according to research published in 2018.

A 2019 study from Colorado Springs’ BSCS Science Learning (the nonprofit studies and improves science curricula and instruction), came up with a similar finding: Something as simple as teaching high school students about plant sexual differences made students more likely to believe in neurogenetic essentialism—the idea that the differences between men and women can be solely attributed to innate, biological variations in their genes and brains, even though most researchers agree that external factors like societal expectations play a role. One problem with neurogenetic essentialism? It can often lead girls to believe incorrectly they aren’t well-suited for science. “It’s validating a broader cultural idea they’ve acquired by growing up in our sexist society,” says Brian Donovan, a senior research scientist at BSCS that worked on the study. “The kids take that knowledge, and it reinforces their underlying ideas about gender.”

That’s why, in 2019, Long and two other biology teachers…

Read the full article.

The Art of Making Science Accessible and Relevant to All Students

By: Catherine Gewertz

On the island of Oahu in Hawaii, 2nd graders weave mats, baskets, or other objects from the local hala plant. In northeastern Oklahoma, middle schoolers investigate why light makes some surfaces work like windows and others like mirrors.

Thousands of miles apart, those projects have something powerful in common: They were designed with equity in mind. The lesson writers deliberately chose, as anchors for the lessons, natural phenomena that all students know equally and can see in their own lives.

Centering science lessons on phenomena that are universal—like light—or deeply rooted in a region’s culture or location—like the hala plant—can make science more relevant and interesting for students. But they can also have a powerful role in building equity, since all students begin with something they know.

“I’m not going to have students investigate the chemical reaction of the family silver tarnishing, because not all kiddos are going to have that experience in their lives,” said Rebecca Morales, the science-curriculum coordinator in the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, school district. “I try to get my teachers thinking about choosing phenomena that all students as humans can consider.”

Conversations like these are unfolding across the country, as more than 40 states implement the Next Generation Science Standards, or standards based on their underlying Framework for K-12 Science Education.

Equity is woven through the NGSS and their framework; the documents frame expectations for all students, not just those aiming for science careers. Phenomena-based instruction is…

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Video-Based Teacher Collaboration Helps Teachers Find the ‘Story of Science’

By: Sarah D. Sparks

For isolated or overwhelmed science teachers, it can be tough to take a step back and ensure that the daily lectures and experiments guide students to a cohesive understanding of the subject.

One expanding professional development program hopes to give rural teachers the support to examine their practice in depth through video collaboration with local and faraway peers.

The Science Teachers Learning Through Lesson Analysis program, or “STeLLA®,” uses a “lesson study” model, in which teachers attend a two-week summer boot camp on science content. Then groups of five to seven teachers post monthly videos of their classroom lessons, analyze them together online or in person, and develop future lesson plans focused on tying classroom activities to threads of “big ideas” in science that are carried through the year. The approach evolved from the next generation science standards and from an international observational study of science classrooms.

For example, in one district’s standard 5th grade unit, a teacher might begin by introducing the three states of matter and the molecular models of solid, liquid, and gas.

“They begin with content representations of those very abstract ideas and progress from there,” said Jody Bintz, an associate director for BSCS Science Learning (formerly Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) in Colorado Springs, who leads STeLLA professional learning and leadership development.

Teachers in the training, by contrast, start by presenting students with a beaker of boiling water and a question: Can we make the water disappear?

“We begin with a phenomenon. … Kids speak through the observation of that beaker of boiling water. Kids begin to talk about what they’re seeing. They make observations, they make their thinking visible through classroom dialogue,” Bintz said, noting the lesson aligns to the NGSS. Students learn about the concept of different states of matter by observing, creating, and talking through the changes they can make in the physical water.

A series of pilot studies on STeLLA and Reinvigorating Elementary Science through a Partnership with California Teachers (RESPeCT), a sister program applying the model to urban, high-poverty schools, found teachers who had been randomly chosen to participate in the training performed significantly better than a control group of teachers on tests of science content knowledge, and their students significantly outperformed their peers in assessments of scientific reasoning and the ability to apply scientific concepts in new contexts.

This summer, the program received a five-year, $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s innovation and research program to expand the training to rural elementary teachers and continue to study it with help from the American Institutes of Research. Part of that scale-up will involve creating more online training to make the current 88-hour professional development program more sustainable for cash-strapped districts.

OpenSciEd Releases OER MS Science Curriculum

By: Dian Schaffhauser

OpenSciEd is rolling out one of the first curricula that both aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards and, as an open science education resource, is free. The nonprofit is working to produce an entire science curriculum that runs from elementary through high school, is freely downloadable and is designed to be used with low-cost standard laboratory equipment and materials. The organization is led by 10 partner states, science educators, curriculum developers and philanthropic organizations, including BSCS Science Learning, Northwestern University, Boston College, the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin and Digital Promise.

This first round of releases is for middle school science. The three units of instruction cover “thermal energy,” “metabolic reactions” and “sound waves.” They’ve passed evaluation by…

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Teachers Nationwide Now Have Access to Open Source Science Curriculum

By: Sarah Schwartz

When Susan McClarty’s district made the switch to open educational resources, the 6th and 7th grade science teacher at Centennial Middle School in Broken Arrow, Okla., initially struggled to find quality materials aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. “We were kind of wading through water, trying to create something out of nothing,” she said.

But last school year, her school participated in a field test for a new, open-source middle grades science curriculum: OpenSciEd. The units were easy to use and emphasized hands-on discovery, she said, and using them took the pressure off of teachers to shape a coherent curriculum.

McClarty is one of the many teachers who have found it difficult to find materials that answer the NGSS’ call for science instruction based on questioning and discovery.

Now, OpenSciEd is slowly rolling out one of the first full, OER curricula that claims alignment to these standards. Three units are currently available to the public: 6th grade thermal energy, 7th grade metabolic reactions, and 8th grade sound waves. All three were rated high quality by the peer review panel at Achieve, a nonprofit organization that helped states write the NGSS.

OpenSciEd, backed by funders including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, plans to release the remaining units in groups of three every six months. The full sequence is projected to be out by winter 2022…

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