Advancing Interdisciplinarity in Life Science Education

Double-Helix structure of DNA, image from Gerd Altmann

This is an interdisciplinary project led by the department of biology (D-BIOL, Prof. Ernst Hafen and Dr. Katja Köhler) and the chair of learning sciences and higher education (D-GESS, Prof. Manu Kapur). The project will be implemented by Carina Känzig.

We have previously shown that biology students entering university share serious misunderstandings, most of which persist even after three semesters of university instruction. Queloz et al. (2016, 2017) performed the BCI (Biological Concept Inventory) with biology bachelor students in their first and third semester at University. The BCI is a diagnostic tool used to measure students’ thinking about core cellular and molecular biological concepts. Queloz et al. found that students struggle most with biological questions requiring knowledge transfer from other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses which are also taught during the first year of university studies. In this project we want to find out why this is the case. One of the reasons for the persistent poor performance in the BCI might be that there are a lot of misconceptions in the STEM concepts themselves which makes it even harder, if not impossible, to acquire new biological knowledge based on those concepts, not to mention achieving a transfer of knowledge between subjects.

In a first step we will identify the underlying concepts from other STEM subjects which are necessary for a more holistic conceptual understanding of biology. This will be achieved by interviewing biology lecturers and by analyzing frequently used biology textbooks for concept networks.

Next, we will develop and validate a measurement tool containing tasks which require the use of these concepts – the concept survey. During the validation phase we will conduct think-aloud interviews in order to improve the tool and to analyze novices’ and experts’ ways of thinking about problems in a certain context. Then students at different levels of the biology bachelor at ETH will be tested for their STEM concept knowledge using the created concept survey and for their biological concept knowledge using the BCI again.

Finally, based on the findings from the above mentioned studies we will design interventions for the bachelor’s program addressing the most persistent misconceptions. These interventions will then be tested for their effectiveness. As of today nothing more can be said about the specific design of the interventions. More information will follow in due time.

Carina Känzig

Samuel Tobler

Katja Köhler

Ernst Hafen

Manu Kapur