What a Wonderful World: Spiraling Statistics Throughout a High School Biology Course
On the first day of school, during the last two minutes of my class, I play the BBC video “What a Wonderful World with David Attenborough.” I add to the theatrics by singing along to the lyrics and swaying to the beat of the music that plays in the background as majestic wildlife images appear on the screen. This is the backdrop for unit one of my class because with some context, it allows students to begin to think about the type of research that they find exciting.
I emphasize that in order to analyze findings and communicate answers to science questions to a larger audience, one must learn the appropriate use of mathematics in laboratory work. I emphasize that all of my students will develop a deeper understanding of the importance of data analysis and proper statistical tool selection for their research questions by the end of the school year.
Teaching statistics to students with a wide range of mathematical ability has not always been easy for me. One resource that I have found extremely valuable has been “Using BioInteractive Resources to Teach Mathematics and Statistics in Biology" from BioInteractive.
It has been a very informative teacher resource for building my own content knowledge. This resource has also been an excellent reference for planning continuous reinforcement of statistics concepts at various points during the year using different science topics. I introduce statistics concepts during the first two weeks of school when discussing experimental design through the “Lady Tasting Coffee” case study from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. I revisit certain aspects of descriptive and/or inferential statistics throughout the year as suggested at the end of the BioInteractive statistics manual with the following activities:
- Evolution in Action: Data Analysis
- Diet and the Evolution of Salivary Amylase
- Mendelian Genetics, Probability, Pedigree, and Chi-Square Statistics
I use the “Evolution in Action: Data Analysis” activity as a formative assessment after covering experimental design and statistics. The nature of the activity allows flexibility as to when I use it during the school year. I introduce students to the activity through a segment of the film “The Origin of Species: The Beak of the Finch” since some students watch this short film in introductory biology. This film is a sure crowd-pleaser, and students remember it well beyond AP Biology.
Students walk away after watching the film feeling like they know the researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant. The film helps students see the data presented in the “Evolution in Action” activities as much more than just numbers and graphs. The first activity helps students to self-assess what they already know about graphing and calculating the mean and standard deviation. In the second activity, students calculate the mean, standard deviation, standard error of the mean, and 95% confidence interval. Students work in groups during both activities, which facilitates small-group discussions among students and myself. The nature of the assignment allows students to step back and survey what they understand and what they need to explore further in order to use a particular statistical tool.
I find that spiraling back to statistics concepts using a different context helps students to focus on understanding why they would select a particular statistical tool. I also find that it decreases the stress some students feel related to mathematics and statistics. Students understand that I do not expect everyone to reach the same level of understanding at the same time. By the end of the year, I hope they can understand, interpret, and analyze their data, in order to answer testable questions and form solid arguments based on evidence, and these activities help students progress toward meeting that goal. The ultimate goal is to scaffold student learning of science practices so that they can confidently communicate their in-class research with a professional product such as a science research poster.
Diana Siliezar-Shields teaches at Barrington High School in Rhode Island, where she’s been the science department chair for the past 12 years. She has been teaching since 1997. She has been a RI Outstanding Biology Teacher award recipient, the Teacher of the Year Recipient for Barrington High School, and a Rhode Island College Alumni Honor Roll Inductee. She earned a PhD in education from the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. She is also involved in various leadership roles that focus on deeper learning, Universal Design for Learning, and research-based science practices, as well as heavily involved in guiding the writing process for the biology, chemistry, and physics curricula. She enjoys reading, going to RI and MA beaches, and supporting the arts with her two daughters and husband.
This article by professor Melissa Haswell sequences a four-week evolution module that minimizes lecture while teaching students to think like scientists.
Jason Crean describes how he uses BioInteractive's "Beaks as Tools" activity to supplement understanding of Rosemary and Peter Grant's research on the evolution of the Galápagos finches.