Researchers improve life science teaching with STEMGenetics

January 21, 2014
Michelle Williams (center, standing) observes as U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson experiences a STEMGenetics lesson in Cedar Hill, Texas. Photo by Wallace Faggett.

Michelle Williams (center, standing) observes as U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson experiences a STEMGenetics lesson in Cedar Hill, Texas. Photo by Wallace Faggett.

Michigan State University College of Education researchers and partners have created an innovative approach for teaching students about genetics—and helping them gain skills for in-demand science and technology jobs.

The project recently gained attention from federal legislators, who visited participating schools in Michigan and Texas to learn how STEMGenetics is giving students an early advantage for understanding issues affecting health, agriculture and the environment.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Congressman Marc Veasey, both members of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, interacted with fifth-graders demonstrating what they have learned during a visit to West Intermediate School in Cedar Hill, Texas on Feb. 19, 2014.

“The work that you all are doing with these young students is crucial to America becoming a global leader in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math,” said Johnson. “We must prepare our students with a sense of analytical thinking that will allow them to solve the problems of the future. It is important that we start teaching these skills at this young age to allow for these students to aspire to be the scientists, engineers, and inventors of the future. ”

Michelle Williams, associate professor of science education at MSU, and Angela DeBarger, senior research scientist at SRI International, are using a 2.3 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the package of curriculum, assessment and teaching training.

Research has shown that students in Michigan and Texas—which represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds—demonstrate significantly improved understanding of life science, biology and genetics concepts after participating in STEMGenetics, which features technology making it possible for teachers to track student progress and offer feedback throughout the learning process.

“STEMGenetics has proven successful in teaching students fundamental life science skills that will prepare them for advanced learning,” said Williams. “We help develop teacher capacity, so teachers can effectively introduce important science concepts in earlier grades, which means our children will be better-prepared.”

Associate professor Michelle Williams (left) and Angela DeBarger watch as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow learns about the STEMGenetics curriculum. Photo by Jeff Seguin.

Associate professor Michelle Williams (left) and Angela DeBarger watch as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow learns about the STEMGenetics curriculum. Photo by Jeff Seguin.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan also learned about the project during a visit to Glencairn Elementary School in East Lansing, Mich. on Jan. 21, 2014. Local and state policymakers also attended the event.

“By growing plants right in the classroom and having students predict how traits will be expressed, science teachers at Glencairn and across the school district are educating students about life sciences in a fun, innovative way,” Stabenow said. “It was great to see firsthand how STEMGenetics will help prepare our children for future success.”

The researchers are developing progressively more complicated classroom lessons for grades 5, 7 and 9. The work is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, an approach for teaching science being introduced nationwide that emphasizes core ideas and scientific practices.

“Our approach is an innovative partnership using evidence-based practices that prepare teachers to bring science education—primarily genetics—to K-12 students at an earlier stage than is currently taught,” said DeBarger. “STEMGenetics utilizes open-source, interactive learning technologies that allow teachers to assess student progress as they work through the curriculum together.”

Read the National Science Foundation Discoveries article on STEMGenetics.