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Engineering High School Biology into the 21st Century

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Christian Schunn

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Background
The Next Generation Science Standards integrate engineering practices as a core method for learning science and as a 21st century skill set that all students must develop. Engineering is transforming our world, serving as the core of the innovation economy and touching all aspects of our lives. But the gap between where we need to go and classroom reality is particularly salient in high school biology, where memorization is king and engineering practices and outcomes are largely absent, even though biotechnology is exploding. As biology is typically a first exposure to high school-level science, it is particularly unfortunate that students experience such an uninteresting, low-tech, memorization-driven approach.

We present a new approach to teaching core biology concepts (inheritance and evolution), involving engaging engineering design challenges (breeding rare animals for a zoo or breeding rare insects to help children in developing nations) that students solve using a combination of inexpensive hands-on materials that integrate modern biotechnologies and simple computational simulations.

These materials are made available to teachers through an online tool called iPlan, that gives just-in-time guidance on the how and why of the curriculum steps, an opportunity for teachers to customize the materials to their own classroom needs, an opportunity to see how other teachers have customized each lesson, and an opportunity to engage in discussions with other teachers about these materials.

Documented Results
Through the engineering design challenges, students see purposes and applications of science not normally presented in a science classroom. Our research finds that high school students taught through engineering challenges see a doubling in interest in engineering careers, and the effect is driven by coming to see that engineering helps to solve the world’s problems. Because students are asked to reason through how to apply biology concepts and computational tools to solve the problem, they build deeper understandings of inheritance and evolution concepts. Our research on engineering design-based learning has found improvements in science learning for all students, with the largest gains shown by students traditionally underrepresented in science.

Through use of these materials, teachers also develop a deeper understanding of the concepts they are teaching as well as learn about engineering design practices, which many teachers have little prior training.

Potential Applications
Variations of the materials have been used successfully across multiple states in a range of urban, suburban, and rural school districts in the following high school science courses: Biology 1, Honors Biology, Ecology, and AP Biology.

For More Information
Send email to schunn@pitt.edu or visit http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/schunn/research/design.html.