Why do education research too?

I believe teaching should be approached with the same rigor as traditional scientific investigations.

Would a chemist ever pick up a bottle of hydrofluoric acid and just “wing it” when deciding how much to pour in?


Would a marine ecologist ever swim up to a shark, lasso it and drag it up onto land for a few hours to try to count how many teeth it has?


Would a geologist ever approach an active lava flow and reach out to touch it to figure out how hot it is?


All of those things are terrible ideas. When scientists perform investigations, they first consult the literature to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and what goes terribly wrong. They don’t just rely on intuition. They don’t just do whatever their advisor did (or at least they shouldn’t). So why do scientists think that they can walk into a classroom and just “wing it” teaching? Or just do whatever someone 30 years ago was told was a good idea? 

I frequently consult the educational literature when designing curriculum, trying new pedagogical approaches, or trying to solve issues in my class. I also am active in education research so that when I decide to try something new it can be rigorously assessed and documented. I hope that in doing so, someone, somewhere who has a similar idea can see whether or not it worked.

Below you can find a summary of some of my recent educational research projects.


The Course Material Auto-Coder (CMAC)

What skills do you teach in your classes? Are the skills you teach the same as the skills you assess? How do you know what skills you’re teaching? If you had to quantify what percent of your assignments focused on interpretation vs synthesis skills, could you do it? Questions like these motivate me and my collaborator, Andrew Peterson, to develop a computer program that uses natural language processing to quickly “read” 1000’s of course materials – homework assignments, exams, lecture slides, in-class activities, etc, and then determine the frequency with which 17 different scientific skills are represented in the materials. The library that CMAC references when making skill determinations was originally created from a large volume of hand-coded course documents. Those documents were exclusive to the geology department and were part of an ongoing effort to map skill development within a major, but the library was designed to be content independent.

Departments across campus got wind of CMAC and its applications for curriculuar mapping, so now I am beginning the process of validating CMAC’s library across STEM and social science disciplines. Additionally, I am developing specialized libraries for programming skill identification, Bloom’s taxonomy-style skill identification, etc.

Interested in being part of the CMAC development (i.e. sending me your course documents and letting me use your anonymized data)? Email me!

Characterizing the Accessibility Climate in the Department of Geological Sciences (2016 – present)

Geology and earth science are fields that by their very nature often require students and researchers to go out “in the field,” which simply means they go collect data outside. Unfortunately, particularly at the undergraduate level, the enrollment of students with physical disabilities in introductory geology courses is below what would be expected based on school-wide demographics. We think this is in part because field work is such a large component of geology and earth sciences, and students with physical disabilities are often excluded from participating in field work. Megan R.M. Brown and I are co-PIs formally characterizing the “Accessibility Climate” in our own department through both qualitative and quantitative data. Using that data, we are developing strategies and programs to increase inclusion of students with physical disabilities and provide a more equitable educational experience.

Increasing Inclusion and Retention in Undergraduate Geology Labs Through Targeted TA Training (2017 – present)

We (Megan R.M. Brown and myself) have preliminary data from “Characterizing the Accessibility Climate in the Department of Geological Sciences” which shows that teaching assistants (TAs) in our department felt that there was a problem with low enrollment of students with disabilities, agreed in general that some of our labs are not accessible, but reported having little knowledge of how to tackle these issues on their own. As a response, we are piloting a program in Fall 2017 to provide additional training and resources to all new TAs. We are assessed the effectiveness of our training in AY 17-18, and will be writing up our results for publication soon.

Teaching the Hydrologic Cycle Through Digital Game-Based Learning (2018 – present)

The freshwater hydrologic cycle is an incredibly important concept for majors and non-majors alike to understand. However, the freshwater hydrologic cycle spans wide spatial and temporal scales and previous studies have shown that issues of scale are particularly challenging for undergraduates to grasp. I am testing whether using digital games will help improve attitude toward earth science, knowledge about the hydrologic cycle and scale, and the retention of that knowledge.

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