Professor wins grant to improve science education
12/3/2008 -

Kefyn Catley, an associate professor of biology and head of the secondary science education program at Western Carolina University, speaks with a Tuscola High School student in November.

Kefyn M. Catley, an associate professor of biology and head of the secondary science education program at Western Carolina University, recently secured a $665,247 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to research ways of improving high school and college biology curricula.

Catley and Laura R. Novick, a professor of cognitive psychology and former colleague at Vanderbilt University, are project co-collaborators. The three-year study will begin in spring, with portions of it taking place at WCU, Vanderbilt, Tuscola High School in Haywood County and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“It’s a collaborative effort across institutions,” said Catley, above right, shown with a Tuscola High School student. The initial phase includes diagnostics to determine how students think in evolutionary terms. Ultimately, based on the study’s findings, Catley and Novick will create a biology curriculum that they hope will produce stronger science students.

Catley’s specialty is education in evolutionary biology, and he has narrowed his focus to helping high school and university students better understand the processes and principals of that topic. Catley contends that many students – and their teachers – have a poor understanding of macroevolution, the study of change that occurs at or above the level of species. Without a firm grip on macroevolution, Catley said, students lack an understanding of the comprehensive history of life on the planet.

Catley and Novick’s research focuses on the role of diagrams in helping students comprehend evolution. Called cladograms, these diagrams are key to understanding macroevolution. They illustrate, with branching lines, “the origin and fate of species and natural groups of species – the persistence through time of some and the extinction of others,” Catley said. Although powerful predictive tools that biology professionals in the field have used for years, cladograms have yet to be used to any degree in life science education.

Catley and Novick recently led a study documenting the type, frequency and distribution of evolutionary diagrams in 31 contemporary textbooks aimed at a wide array of readers from middle school to the undergraduate level. Results of the study appeared in the November issue of BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. The study found that while evolutionary diagrams appeared frequently in textbooks, many of them were “confusing and open to multiple interpretations.”

Randi Neff, a biology teacher at Tuscola, called evolutionary biology the “rock of biology” and said that teachers often don’t know how to tie the concept to their course of study because their own understanding of it is limited. Beginning this spring, approximately 80 Tuscola sophomore science students will participate in the diagnostic portion of Catley and Novick’s grant-funded study. Eventually, Neff will help develop the new curriculum and test it in her classroom. The curriculum will likely exceed state requirements, she said.

While some segments of society might resist broadening evolutionary education because of its sometimes controversial nature, biologists argue it’s critical to both filling the ranks of U.S. scientists and keeping the United States competitive worldwide.

“If you want to work in a well-paid job these days, you really need to be literate in science,” said Catley. “A good understanding of science underpins democracy.”

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Last modified Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008.


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