Learning and teaching in STEM fields using “authentic problems”

by Peter D. Huck

In STEP-WISE, my co-instructors and I sought to leverage our experience with computer programming to instruct fourth year biology students in what type of analysis was possible with the aid of open-source computational resources, like Python. We sought to teach students how to think about and approach problems relevant in our research. Little did we know that we were adhering to an approach that the education literature calls teaching with “authentic problems”.

A perennial concern in higher education is how to ensure that recent college graduates can solve real-world problems they encounter, despite having completed a program of rigorous course work. Price and coworkers (2021) address this concern. They hypothesize that the ability to solve problems is assessed by challenging exercises with well-defined answers reached by straightforward analysis, but do not require the use of judgement to make decisions based on limited or incomplete information. Therefore, to improve students’ ability to solve problems, instructors should offer problems that are more unstructured, lacking a clear solution path or that are not certain to have any solution at all, to come closer to real world situations. These are the problems that, according to Price et al. are authentic.

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Rethinking the Share in the Think-Pair-Share

By Joseph Groom

Cooper KM, Schinske JN, and Tanner KD. Reconsidering the Share of a Think-Pair-Share: Emerging Limitations, Alternatives, and Opportunities for Research. CBE Life Sciences Education (2021). Vol. 20: fe1. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-08-0200

Random Call Anxiety

In their article in the March 2021 issue of CBE Life Sciences Education, K.M. Cooper et al. use recent studies to make a case for altering or abolishing the “share” portion of the widely used Think-Pair-Share method. The Think-Pair-Share is a popular active learning technique that allows students to come up with ideas on their own, bounce those ideas off of a classmate, hear a variety of student voices, and refine and articulate their own ideas by sharing them with the whole class. Cooper et al. succinctly explain how the “share” portion in particular can lead to inequities in learning, how certain assumptions about benefits of the “share” are not necessarily true, and how to effectively modify or remove the “share”.

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Curating content to teach concepts

By Mugdha Sathe

When I started my Masters in Biochemistry, I encountered huge biology textbooks. The large content was overwhelming, and I was questioning my decision to enter biochemistry when I had been a chemistry undergrad. But then, over the next two years, I realized I was learning all kinds of concepts along with these new-to-me biology facts.

As instructors, why do we focus on content instead of concepts? Petersen and colleagues address this question in their recent article about “the tyranny of content”. Instructors reported that the ‘Need to cover content’ was one of the barriers that kept them from implementing active learning in their classrooms. Basic courses are often prerequisites for advance course creating a perceived need to cover particular content. These concerns are legitimate. Learning facts does matter. But, still faculty-centered teaching persists despite the effectiveness of student-centred learning practices.

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A quantifiable measure of classroom engagement using skin biosensors

By Michael W. Cashman

In the second whole-group training session, my STEP-WISE colleagues and I learned about active learning techniques, their benefits, and why we should incorporate active pedagogy in the biology seminars we are designing and teaching. Based on personal experience as a student, participating in a flipped classroom learning environment that relies on just-in-time pedagogy works! So, I was surprised to learn that reformed-based teaching and learning practices are only gaining traction among academics responsible for teaching undergraduate STEM courses. The flipped classroom actually works for lots of people: a steadily increasing amount of data support active learning techniques and the positive impacts they can have on student learning.

Enter a group of researchers from Auburn University determined to generate data providing insight about what impact reformed-based teaching and learning practices have on student learning outcomes. Their article, “Biosensors show promise as a measure of student engagement in a large introductory biology course,” published in CBE—Life Sciences Education journal (December 2020) explains a masterfully crafted, meticulously designed, and utterly creative test.

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Training undergraduates through research networks

By Joseph Groom


Jensen-Ryan D, Murren CJ, Rutter MT, and Thompson JJ. Advancing Science while Training Undergraduates: Recommendations from a Collaborative Biology Research Network. CBE – Life Sciences Education (2020). 19: es13. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-05-0090.

As a postdoc interested in a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution, I think a lot about how to effectively mentor students in my lab but also maintain a productive research program. I looked to this article for suggestions from faculty members with extensive experience leading an undergraduate research network.

What it is

Jensen-Ryan et al (2020) highlight a successful undergraduate biology research network (BRN) in CBE-Life Sciences Education. They wanted to synthesize what has been learned about running a BRN by identifying key successes, challenges, and recommendations. So, they interviewed a bunch of faculty members who have been a part of an 8-year BRN, and then coded the transcripts of those interviews.. They found that the BRN diversified access to scientific research, and improved student experiences, scientific outcomes, and faculty professional development. But they also found “goal conflict”: producing data and mentoring students are not necessarily aligned. Nonetheless, while data production was slower than anticipated, the positive student outcomes were very apparent. They recommend that mentors (1) use stringent laboratory protocols that can be modified through student work, (2) have dedicated personnel for management of the project, and (3) choose appropriate collaborators with agreed-upon expectations.

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Research and Biology Education

Originally published in 2018 on the UWB Digital Learning and Innovation Blog.

by Becca Price

I keep reinventing myself. It’s one of the aspects of academia that I’ve enjoyed the most. I started studying the way different species of sea slugs were related, then I started looking at the history of sea shells that evolved 100s of millions of years ago. And when I came to UWB 12 years ago, I realized how much we, as a community of educators, can do to improve the way students are learning science. My interest in science education—especially around biology—was born. That took me, in turn, to teaching new PhDs how to teach college science.

My interests have broadened again, now with the goal to welcome more people into the vibrant research on biology education. The leading journal in our field, CBE-Life Sciences Education, started a new feature called “Anatomy of an Education Study” that introduces the research methods common within the field. I, along with Clark Coffman from the Iowa State University, are annotating the articles in this feature with five lenses in mind—a format inspired by the lenses that Science uses in their annotations[1]. We highlight the background, pointing readers to classic texts and debates; we offer succinct definitions of the jargon that inevitably creeps into a research area; we explicate the research methods and design that the authors use, annotations that help an audience more used to biological research than the social science of how students learn biology; we highlight the instructional implications of the work that the authors discuss; and, lastly, we offering writing tips, to orient readers to the conventions of articles in this field.

The first two sets of annotations that Clark and I wrote focus on different qualitative methods, in one case for testing whether a survey measures what is intended, and the other for using the knowledge of experienced instructors and researchers to construct a list of teaching strategies that unpack the idea of scientific teaching.

Science education research has changed a lot in the last decade, as researchers become more comfortable navigating the many methods used in this interdisciplinary field. I hope that the “Anatomy of an Education Study” might help you become familiar with the tool…and maybe, you are developing a comparable tool in another field that can orient me the next time I reinvent myself.


  1. Learning Lens by Science in the Classroom is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.


We Built an Active Learning Class to Teach Students How to Critically Evaluate Health Claims. Did it Work?

by Jeremy Whitson

Dr. Jeremy Whitson at the UW Teaching and Learning Symposium.

The Fall of 2017 was a tumultuous time for public discourse around science in the US. Phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” entered the mainstream vernacular as an administration that cared little for truth, accuracy, or ethics took control of the White House. Science deniers began heading key agencies, gag rules were put into place, and researchers across the country feared how their already diminishing funding might be reallocated. Meanwhile, the internet, once conceptualized as the ultimate tool for disseminating information, was proving itself to be the ultimate tool for misinformation. Long dormant diseases began making a resurgence and commercial brands were using the public’s ignorance to push misleading, or even straight up dangerous, products like raw water, anti-aging creams, and juice cleanses.  Continue reading

STEP Writing Retreat

Dear STEP Fellows,

Are you interested in publishing in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning? If so, we encourage you to join us for the first STEP writing retreat, which will be held Friday, August 3rd at UW Bothell from 9am – 3pm in UW2-141  [room 141 in Commons Hall (UW2)].

This will be an opportunity to write reviews or activities that you’ve prepared to submit to peer-reviewed journals like CourseSource or American Biology Teacher (such as Tips, Tricks, and Techniques, e.g., Price 2013). We will also explore other venues, such as Science in the Classroom and our very own STEP blog. You may also want to consider Life Science Teaching Resource, which includes a pretty wide-based and inclusive collection of resources that covers different disciplines of the biological sciences. It also has a guest blog associated with it. National Science Teachers Association offers a variety of resources on excellence on teaching and learning, including informal science education. It has resources for different age groups from K-12  through college level. Human Anatomy and Physiology has other outlets. Two more peer-reviewed resources are Advances in Physiology Education and the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.

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Managing anxiety in active learning classrooms

by Trisha Sippel

When I was a student, you could usually find me in the middle or back of the classroom. I would be just close enough to see the board, but far enough to inconspicuously blend in with the crowd and avoid being noticed. My early school days were spent hiding out this way while praying my teacher wouldn’t call on me, my face turning red-hot if they did. College was less anxiety producing. Sure, I was getting older and becoming more confident, but mostly I didn’t have to worry as much about being called on in class. Typically, the professor would stand at the front of a large lecture hall without much interaction with the students.

As active learning has gained traction in science classrooms, I have thought a lot about the possible anxiety of some of my students, especially those who are less comfortable speaking up in class, as I was. I could imagine being intimidated by and resistant to the amount of interaction and group work involved with active learning. After implementing these techniques in my own classroom, through the Science Teaching Experience for Postdocs (STEP) program, I clearly see the advantages of this type of learning compared to passive lecturing. Now, I wonder how we can make the active learning classroom a more comfortable place for all of our students.

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UW Teaching and Learning Symposium 2018

STEP was well-represented at the UW Teaching and Learning Symposium on April 17th, 2018. STEP alumni Dr. Eva Ma, Dr. Sarah Morgan, Dr. Suzzanne Mcdermott, Dr. Amy Stone, and Dr. Angela Katsuyama all presented posters about the interactive activities that they had developed with STEP Forward and/or the Pacific Science Center’s Science Communication Fellowship, while Dr. Liz Kwan presented a module that she and her fellow co-instructors had developed for their STEP course. STEP mentors Dr. Salwa Al-Noori, Dr. Becca Price, and Dr. Eva Ma along with Elizabeth McCullough from the Pacific Science Center also presented a poster on our STEP Forward program’s partnership with the Pacific Science Center.

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