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Mentored Research Projects

Click on each project/tab to read more!  Recent presentations and publications from projects are included.  Former REU student co-authors are italicized.

Chemistry Education Research

REActivities: Reinventing the Organic Chemistry lab experience
Dr. Tina Collison Goudreau (Chemistry) is reinventing organic chemistry lab instruction through the creation, implementation, and evaluation of Reformed Experimental Activities (REActivities) based on evidence of how students learn.  Data is currently being collected at several institutions with varying characteristics (large/small, public/private, 2-year/4-year) in order to evaluate meaningful learning in the laboratory, and fidelity of implementation.  Dr. Collison and team are investigating how students learn from these reformed laboratory activities. Read More Here 

Molecular Biology Education Research

Physical Models of Biomolecules
Dr. Kate Wright (Biology) and Dr. Dina Newman (Biology) are investigating how bringing physical models of biomolecules into biology classrooms improve conceptual understanding of structure-function relationships that drive biological phenomena.  Our recent work has shown that physical, interactive models of genetic information flow help promote conceptual change in biology students.  Read more about this project here
We recently contributed to the design of a new hands-on model that addresses key concepts about chromosomes and their behavior during meiosis. In 2019 one of our REU students designed an activity and assessment to be used in class.  We are currently collecting and analyzing data on this project. Future work could involve the design of additional model-based activities and assessments to help students learn molecular and genetics concepts.  For examples of other model-based activities, visit here and here.

Representational Competence
Dr. Dina Newman
(Biology) and Dr. Kate Wright (Biology) investigate how students interpret and understand canonical representations in cellular and molecular biology, focusing on the inability of students to identify, construct, and utilize scientific representations.  Much of the previous work on how students use graphical representations has focused on identifying misconceptions, but the impediments to student understanding appear to be the result of fragmented or inaccurate conceptual knowledge, faulty mental models, and an inability to translate between different conceptual models or representations.  Past work has shown that and typical representations do not prime students to think about molecular mechanisms associated with information flow and exchange.  Wright and Newman are also collaborating with biomedical illustrators to articulate and test new design principles for biology symbolism.

Former REU students explored the phenomenon of representational competence (e.g. The ability to correctly interpret a visual representation, like a diagram or illustration) by investigating how arrow symbols are used in introductory biology textbook figures.  Read more about this project here.

Current work is comparing how novices and experts communicate with drawings of DNA and related processes. We are also working on a novel assessment activity to explore the features of drawings that are recognized as important by learners compared to faculty. Undergraduate students have been instrumental in the design and data collection of both projects to date, and there is a lot more work to be done.  

Physics Education Research

POWER: Modeling Critical Skills in STEM Careers
Dr. Kelly Martin (Communications) and Dr. Benjamin Zwickl (Physics) collaborate on the Photonics and Optics Workforce Education Research (POWER) project which explores the photonics workforce and how entry-level employees transfer their knowledge of math, physics and communication into their entry-level jobs. Previous REU projects have studied problem-solving among PhD student researchers in physics, computational and analytics math use among PhD research students, math use in optics companies, and optics skills and knowledge used in optics companies.

Former REU students helped the team analyze interviews with 33 employees at 15 optics and photonics companies about communication norms and expectations in their workplaces. From these interviews we identified five prevalent themes related to what optics and photonics employees consider competent communication.  We also defined the term cross-occupational communication: an interactive, iterative process involving communicative needs assessment, information exchange, and rhetorical/situational flexibility with groups distinct in background, training, and occupational role.

As a result of these findings, and as part of the larger research group, we argue for systematic and intentional communication in the disciplines instruction that considers cross-occupational communication needs in the workforce.  Read more about this work at Spewing nonsense [or not]: communication competence and socialization in optics and photonics workplacesRead More Here 

Examining problem solving in physics-intensive Ph.D. research. Read More Here 

Integration of mathematics and communication in physics-intensive workplaces. Read More Here 

EMPOWER: Modeling Critical Skills in STEM Careers
Dr. Kelly Martin (Communications) and Dr. Benjamin Zwickl (Physics) also conduct the Exploring Multiple Postsecondary Opportunities through Workforce and Education Research (EMPOWER) project on the cultivation and use of 21st Century Skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and self-regulated learning, in STEM classrooms and workplaces. The study spans multiple STEM fields and REU students will be involved in projects investigating workplace practices in order to guide changes about how and what we teach in STEM courses and also to support policymaking around workforce development issues in STEM. Current research is focusing on problem-solving and communication. For example, the team is comparing problem-solving practices across disciplines (computing, photonics, energy, nursing) and differences between professional practice and academic preparation in problem-solving. The project has implications for how disciplines, such as physics, teach problem-solving in their large enrollment introductory courses, which serve a diverse range of majors.

Career Interests and Career Decision-making of STEM Students
Dr. Ben Zwickl is examining how students are forming career interests and taking intentional steps to pursue their goals. This research theme currently has multiple foci, which include college-level physics majors, high school optics students, and students participating in STEM internships. The work is based on Social Cognitive Career Theory, which describes how prior learning experiences shape students’ goals, actions, and achievement. The project includes both qualitative data (focus group interviews) as well as quantitative data from surveys. 

Understanding Learning in Context-rich Learning Environments
Dr. Ben Zwickl is studying learning in context-rich environments, such as project-based courses, undergraduate and graduate student research experiences, and internships. One challenge of these environments is that the experience and outcomes can vary widely between students. The study employs multiple ethnographic approaches (participant observer, video ethnography, and autoethnography) to explore the variety of ways that students develop and learn through context-rich learning environments. Cultural Historical Activity Theory is used as a theoretical perspective to describe how students conceive of their own goals for these experiences, how they use tools (e.g., language, mathematics, lab equipment), and how they develop social relationships in order to achieve practical outcomes (e.g., building an experiment, publishing a paper).
Student Use of  Epistemic Frames while Solving Problems
Epistemic frames describe one's “state of mind.” In the context of problem solving, it explains how students understand and respond to problems and decide which cognitive resources to access in solving them. Dr. Scott Franklin (Physics) oversees research into how epistemic frames manifest and are negotiated when students work collaboratively in groups. Frames are categorized according to a two-axis framework that includes Algorithmic Math, Conceptual Math, Algorithmic Physics, and Conceptual Physics. Student work is “mapped” onto these frames, and the sequence of frames and their transitions studied.


Engineering Education Research

Design Thinking and Spatial Visualization in Biomedical Engineering

Dr. Jennifer Bailey (Biomedical Engineering), who is a new project mentor, is developing hands-on laboratory activities that incorporate Design Thinking and Spatial Visualization (SV) skills into the Biomedical Engineering freshmen curriculum.  Design thinking and SV are aspects of modeling that represent important skills for engineers, and possibly all STEM students. Dr. Bailey’s project will allow REU students to help develop activities and assessment materials to measure the impact of introducing these skills early into the engineering curriculum and how these topics can be effectively intertwined.

STEM Education Research

Scientific Communication
Dr. Kelly Martin (Communications) has an interdisciplinary background in communication and rhetoric with a focus on visual communication and design. Current projects include creating empirical measures of design principles and visual proficiency. She also investigates discipline-specific communication competency and values in STEM centered fields. Related to this, another project investigates how faculty can better design presentation contexts for deaf and hard of hearing students as well as hearing students across any discipline.

Models of Student Success That Include Metacognitive Strategies

Dr. Scott Franklin (Physics) supervises research on undergraduate student metacognition, including accuracy of self-assessment, reflections on one’s own learning, and how students choose and design experimental investigations. The focus of this research is involves analyzing student artifacts of a class, Metacognitive Practice in Science, including student concept maps, lateral transfer maps, and guided reflections for evolving student sophistication and longitudinal analysis of student success to gauge the impact of explicit metacognitive instruction on student retention.

Dr. Franklin is also interested in a variety of STEM Education topics, including programmatic efforts at increasing diversity and inclusion, development of student disciplinary identity, institutional transformation and faculty engagement with diversity initiatives.