Available Biology Education research projects:

Contact: Micha Ummels

Context-based approaches generally improve students’ engagement by situating the learning of science in contexts that represent the real world, which helps students to appreciate the role science plays in their own lives and in society. This research project focuses on one specific form of context-based education: the concept-context approach which stems from the cultural-historical activity theory (Vygotsky, 1978, 1987). According to this approach, a context is defined as a representation of an existing scientific, professional or real-life community of practice in which participants perform goal-oriented activities (Boersma et al., 2007).

At present, one of the challenges in biology education is to change the educational practice towards the intended context-based innovation. So far, several new editions of biology textbooks have been introduced with a rich variety of sources that refer to authentic social practices. To really engage students in meaningful educational learning tasks in which they deal with (a network of) concepts, the authentic social practices must be transformed into usable contexts adapted for classroom use. The aim of this study is to design, conduct and evaluate learning-teaching (LT) activities for context-based biology lessons. If you are interested please contact me.

Nienke Wieringa, Fred J. J. M. Janssen & Jan H. Van Driel (2011) Biology Teachers Designing Context-Based Lessons for Their Classroom Practice—The importance of rules-of-thumb, International Journal of Science Education, 33:17, 2437-2462, https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2011.553969

Menno Wierdsma, Marie-Christine Knippels, Bert van Oers & Kerst Boersma (2016) Journal of Biological Education, 50:3, 239-250, https://doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2015.1058842

Ummels, M.H.J., Kamp, M.J.A., De, Kroon, H. and Boersma, K.T. (2015), Promoting Conceptual Coherence Within Context‐Based Biology Education. Sci. Ed., 99: 958-985.


Contact: Melde Gilissen and Roald Verhoeff

According to the Dutch examination standards (CvE, 2016), systems thinking is a crosscutting concept (in Dutch: denkwijze), which Boersma, Waarlo and Klaassen (2011) describe as thinking backward and forward between concrete biological objects and processes, and systems models representing systems theoretical characteristics. This definition illustrates the pervasive nature of systems thinking and its relation with all other biology domains within the examination standards, i.e. self-regulation, self-organisation, interaction, reproduction and evolution.

Biologie Voor Jou (BVJ) and Nectar are the most used biology textbooks by Dutch biology teachers in secondary education. Both publishers have recently revised their textbooks. Malmberg came up with a revised edition of BVJ in 2013, where they implemented the concept-context approach. In 2017 the revised edition (the fifth edition) of Nectar will appear for the lower secondary education classes. Noordhoff Uitgevers claims that this revised edition brings more coherence between biological topics.

This research project investigates whether the adjustments of both textbooks support a more coherent insight in biology and addresses to what extent the crosscutting concept systems thinking has been implemented in biology textbooks.

Before the revisions there was some criticism on these textbooks. Knippels (2002) analysis on textbooks showed that no explicit attention was paid to levels of biological organisation in the chapters on meiosis and inheritance and the conceptual relationships between these chapters were not made explicit. Verhoeff et al. (2009) determined that an average Dutch textbook introduces 577 new concepts related to the chapter about cell biology. Around 64% of these concepts are not explained in terms of the students’ prior knowledge. In addition, a lot of concepts are only mentioned in the chapter about cell biology and are not used in later topics such as genetics or metabolism. Not explicitly relating important concepts to their level of organisation and not linking concepts at different organisational levels might hinder a coherent insight in biology. The analysis of both Knippels (2002) and Verhoeff (2009) suggest that textbooks can be an important obstacle in learning biology in secondary education. This project builds on these outdated analyses and offers an insight into the current state of the textbooks. With this analysis it is possible to determine the extent of support textbooks give to the development of students’ systems thinking skills.

Boersma, K., Waarlo, A. J., & Klaassen, K. (2011). The feasibility of systems thinking in biology education. Journal of Biological Education, 45(4), 190-197. DOI: 10.1080/00219266.2011.627139.

Contact: Christine Knippels

Rapid developments in biology and the life sciences, like genomics and synthetic biology offer a lot of promises and potential. For instance development of personalised medicines, vaccines and biofuels. However, it also raises questions about biosafety or the moral boundaries of modifying DNA and making life ourselves.  These kind of questions or issues are so called socio-scientific issues (SSI). 

SSIs are problems which often arise in our society and have a scientific and/or a technological component. There is no consensus on how such problems might best be solved for the well-being of individuals and society at large. The public in general, and students in particular, should be able to negotiate and make informed decisions about these kinds of SSIs. Fostering these aspects of citizenship is an important aim of biology education both on the national (Examenprogramma Biologie, 2016) and European level (European Commission, 2015).

In order to support students and teachers in this process, adequate learning and teaching activities are desirable. In the context of an European project called PARRISE we have developed an approach that combines SSIs with inquiry based learning  (called: socio-scientific inquiry-based learning).

Implementing this approach in biology classrooms and teacher training programs is challenging. Many aspects still have to be investigated and analysed in order to make proper education trajectories and materials. Last year our teacher educators implemented activities in their teacher training programme and we have data available that can be used to evaluate these sessions. Moreover, based  on the experiences of the first round of try-outs new learning and teaching activities can be developed and tested.

European Commission (2015). Science Education for Responsible Citizenship. Brussels, European Union. http://ec.europa.eu/research/swafs/pdf/pub_science_education/KI-NA-26-893-EN-N.pdf.

Contact: Wouter van Joolingen

Biology textbooks typically depict molecular and cellular processes such as enzyme operation and protein synthesis with iconic representations of macro-molecules. Whereas this representation is useful to obtain a global view of the processes there are aspects that are not covered but are important for understanding the essence of the processes involved. For example, apart from the ‘lock and key’ idea of enzyme that is involved in order for molecules to ‘snap’ into each other, the molecules themselves are dynamic structures and their movement within the cells adds to the dynamics. Whereas the textbook representation may give rise to the misconception that molecules display purposeful behavior, a representation that incorporates dynamics can give rise to a more accurate ‘mechanistic way’ of reasoning that is capable of explaining the effects of external factors such as temperature and pH value in the cell.

Virtual reality can provide such a dynamic representation. In an environment where students can play with 3D models of molecular processes and in which they can modify the model, students can experiment with the molecular processes and literary see how they come to life and operate together. In this project we will use SimSketch as a modeling tool with which students can modify the dynamic behavior of the molecules and VR software from the lab of Prof. CAI Yiyu at NTU to display the 3D behavior. The research question is how this combination of representations can be integrated in the biology class.

In a team in which you will work together with students from Windesheim University of Applied Sciences (Zwolle), supervised by Dr. Teresa Dias Pedro Gomes and students from Nanyang Technical University (Singapore), you will develop and evaluate lessons around this topic. The validation of the designed pedagogies and lesson plans will be done via the Lesson Study method as developed by Professor Sui Lin Goei (Windesheim) implementing this method widely in Dutch schools in the Netherlands. The student teams will meet using videoconferences and once a year face-to-face during conferences and workshops to discuss the design of the lessons. Both master theses will focus on subtopics of the study, one will be related to the way students use and appreciate the VR aspects in learning about the molecular processes; the second will focus more on the modeling aspect and the specification of the dynamic behavior of the processes.