Biology research lab approaches new learning methods in the sciences

When Dr. Erin Shortlidge became part of Portland State’s biology department in fall 2015, she was put in charge of a new sort of science project: how to effectively absorb and share scientific information with others who may not be familiar with or trusting of science.

This past fall, Shortlidge started the Biology Education Research lab in an effort to address these issues. The lab currently has undergraduate and postbaccalaureate students working toward understanding how people relate to the scientific world.

“While I was finishing my Ph.D., I realized I was interested in how to convey the fascinating nature of science to other people,” Shortlidge said. “I realized there was an entire group of researchers, most with a biology background like mine, that were becoming more interested in how we teach and learn science.”

Shortlidge is the department’s first biology education researcher, and she says that what her lab does can be confusing to some. Often, biology education research is equated with improving the way educators teach science, but Shortlidge says her lab goes to great lengths to collect rigorous, repeated data in its projects.

She said that the lab’s projects “often use many, many people and we use quantitative and qualitative research methods to see what we can say about what’s happening in a classroom.”

Some of the lab’s current projects include examining new student-centered pedagogy techniques used in PSU’s intro-level STEM classes, as well as analysis of how graduate STEM programs prepare master’s students for careers outside academia.

Senior biology major and lab member Emily Olsen works with intro-level STEM pedagogy on campus. According to Olsen, the lab focuses within the disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics, but also connects with geography and geology.

“It is really nice to gain multiple perspectives from different disciplines to help better education methods,” Olsen said.

Olsen believes the sort of work the lab is doing will have a big impact on how students learn science and take it with them into the world. Rather than sitting in a lecture, absorbing information from a professor, students can interact with each other and directly apply critical thinking to their work.

Shortlidge said a major component of her interest in science education is the use of CURE methods in teaching, or course-based undergraduate research experiences. The work within a CURE class is different than a typical lab-and-lecture science course.

CURE classes allow students to experience science more authentically, according to Shortlidge; rather than having students conduct predictable experiments with a predetermined outcome, students perform labs where the result is unknown. This allows students to hypothesize and discover why something turns out the way it does, instead of working toward an already specified goal.

CURE courses also involve collaboration with other students and the instructor and may encourage connections across a broad range of research and disciplines.

“The classroom dynamic plays such a huge role on the growth and developers and has a large impact on our future workforce,” says BER lab member and PSU senior Lucas Bennington. “It is important to examine how labels such as race, ethnicity, gender [and] orientation could have an impact on the learning environment. The work the lab is doing is really good at exploring what steps we can take to ensure a balanced education for everyone.”

Shortlidge said that because of its diverse environment and proximity to the natural world, PSU is ideal for this sort of research. The water quality and sustainability issues—as well as social issues—that Portland faces can provide engaging research avenues for PSU students.

“Having students working on bigger societal and community problems is a way to gain authentic research experience, but also helps to see why it’s important,” Shorlidge said. “I don’t feel like students necessarily see the relevance of science if it’s not in front of them.”

Shortlidge said that in making science education at PSU more student centered, she hopes the university can cultivate a community of citizens who understand the importance of discussing issues based on the data and evidence presented. Part of accomplishing this goal, according to Shortlidge, is getting students involved and invested in their own scientific education at the start of their college careers. Students will then have an opportunity to sharpen these skills throughout college and use them as they interact with the world.

“Science education is starting to be more valued as our society progresses in medicine and technology and with climate change looming over our heads,” Olsen said. “I believe there is still a long way to go, however. This is just the start and I am glad to be part of it.”