Statistics and biology a natural pair for the classroom

December 19, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A typical school day for a middle school student might involve a biology class with a study of growing plants, and later a math class spent solving equations that can be used in statistics.

Vanderbilt researchers believe students and professionals alike can better understand statistics and biology by studying the two disciplines simultaneously. They have received a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore this theory with teachers at Nashville's Rose Park Math and Science Magnet Middle School.

"Statistics were developed to understand and quantify variation in natural systems, so it makes sense to introduce students to key statistical ideas they can use to understand nature," Rich Lehrer, professor of science education and a project team member, said. "We can better understand how students learn these two disciplines, and how best to teach them, by bringing statistics and biology back together in the classroom."

In addition to Lehrer, the Vanderbilt research team includes Professor of Mathematics Education Rogers Hall, Professor of Mathematics Education Pat Thompson and Professor of Education and Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning Leona Schauble.

The centerpiece of the project will be a partnership with Rose Park Middle School teachers to design exercises and class work that help students develop mathematical descriptions of the natural world. For example, students may apply statistical concepts to understand variation in the growth of plants and begin thinking about how these concepts can be adapted to reflect what they see in nature.

"Statistical models evolve as we attempt to understand nature," Lehrer said. "This project will help us understand this evolution and better understand how students learn to reason about variation and change."

To measure student achievement, the team will work with researchers at the University of California-Berkeley to develop student assessment techniques that measure learning better than traditional one-time achievement tests.

The project will also involve researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to develop technologies to support learning in statistics and data modeling, including the development of kid-friendly versions of statistical tools.

In addition to the classroom project, the team will follow statistical consultants as they work with clients in health sciences, engineering and public policy to understand statistical reasoning in actual practice. This will be the first time statisticians have been studied across disciplines and will provide new insight both about professional practice and what is important to teach students about statistics.

The team approach, facilitated by the Vanderbilt Learning Sciences Institute, is critical to the success of the project.

"Education systems are very complex. When they are studied by individuals or loosely affiliated centers, it is hard to get a complete picture," Lehrer said. "All of the investigators on this project will co-design and co-study to provide a comprehensive look at teaching and learning in this domain."

Vanderbilt University

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