Available Biology Education research projects:

No Escape: how can secondary biology education benefit from Escape Rooms?

Contact: Alice Veldkamp and Marie-Christine Knippels

Since the start of the first Escape Room in 2007, the phenomenon has globally risen to immense popularity in the entertainment industry (Nicolson, 2015). Nowadays, it is gaining popularity as an activity in science and biology education (Breakout EDU, 2017; De Groot, 2016).

Escape rooms (ERs) are live-action team-based games, where players encounter challenges e.g. solve a series of puzzles, search for clues, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms. The ultimate goal is usually escaping from the room, in a limited amount of time (Nicholson, 2015; Wiemker, 2015).

For secondary education, organizations like Connected Learning and Escape the Classroom promote and help science teachers with the development ERs (BreakoutEDU, 2017; De Groot, 2016). Acclaimed benefits for education are motivated, active students who work together on content knowledge while developing skills on communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity (Breakout EDU, 2017; De Groot, 2016).

In this project, the educational potential of Escape Rooms (ERs) is explored in relation to possible learning goals, its usability, and feasibility in secondary biology education. We have gathered data in a national “Escape the Classroom” event in which one hundred biology classes in 100 secondary schools participated. Based on you interest we can focus the research project on different aspects, such as:

  • Describing the users he views, students and teachers, on the educational potential of ERs in secondary biology education. Interviews, questionnaires and video’s made by students’ on their ER experiences can be analyzed for this purpose.
  • Identifying features and principles of educational ER’s . Classroom observations and research results in the field of game studies are also taken into account.
  • Developing  guidelines for educational escape rooms. By means of action research, the educational potential of Escape Rooms in relation to learning goals, outcomes usability, feasibility and for secondary biology education are explored, and the guidelines adapted.
  • Designing ER activities based on these guidelines and test them in classroom practice.

Breakout EDU. http://www.breakoutedu.com/ retrieved 14-2-2017.

De Groot, A. (2016). Lerarenontwikkelfonds initiatieven; Escape the classroom 2.0. https://lerarenontwikkelfonds.onderwijscooperatie.nl/initiatief/escape-the-classroom-2-0 retrieved 14-2-2017.

Nicholson, S. (2015). Peeking behind the locked door: A survey of escape room facilities. http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/erfacwhite.pdf retrieved 14-2-2017.

Wiemker, M., Elumir, E., & Clare, A. (2015). Escape Room Games. Game Based Learning, 55.

Systems thinking in biology education

Supervisors: Melde Gillisen (PhD), Roald Verhoeff, Wouter van Joolingen
Contact: Melde Gilissen

One of the key elements of lifelong learning (in biology) is systems thinking, i.e. the ability to understand and interpret complex systems. Systems thinking is a way of thinking in which biological phenomena are seen as natural wholes that are complex and consist of many interacting parts. Living systems can be explained in terms of systems theoretical characteristics, for example input and output, self-organising and emergent properties. Several studies have developed teaching and learning approaches to implement systems thinking in a specific biological topic, for example cell biology, homeostasis or ecology. According to Verhoeff (2008) implementation of systems thinking asks for more endeavour than one series of lessons. Instead it is desirable to integrate systems thinking with various biological topics or the entire curriculum.

Within the context of a 4,5 year PhD project M. Gilissen focuses on systems thinking as a metacognitive tool for students to study the complexity of life. To bridge the gap between science education research and the practical demands of everyday classroom teachers will be involved in the developing process of a teaching and learning approach. The main aim of the study is to define heuristics for biology teachers to introduce systems thinking in biology education.

Different possibilities for your research project

  • Develop an assessment tool for students’ systems thinking skills and determine to what extent Dutch secondary school students have already developed their systems thinking skills.
  • Design a specific (part of a) biology lesson in order to foster students systems thinking skills in biology education. The designed intervention will be tested in practice and evaluated on its effectiveness.
  • Determine the effectiveness of interventions that have been developed by biology teachers, by means of analysing video-observations of the lesson, in-depth interviews with students and teachers, results of the pre- and post-tests and students’ products.

Verhoeff, R. P., Waarlo, A. J., & Boersma, K. T. (2008). Systems modelling and the development of coherent understanding of cell biology. International Journal of Science Education, 30(4), 543-568.

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

Tripto, J., Assaraf, O. B. Z., & Amit, M. (2018). Recurring patterns in the development of high school biology students’ system thinking over time. Instructional Science. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11251-018-9447-3

Yoon, S. A., & Hmelo-Silver, C. (2017). Introduction to special issue: models and tools for systems learning and instruction. Instructional Science, 45(1), 1-4.

Contact: Susanne Jansen and Christine Knippels

Models are used in science both to explain certain phenomena and to test hypotheses about these phenomena. In biology education, models are of great importance. Every textbook is filled with different kinds of models to help students understand and work with the information that has been given. A drawing of a cell and its components, an ecological pyramid, or the process of photosynthesis are just a few of the many biological examples that you can find in textbooks. The most difficult type of models in biology education are concept process models. In these models a process is depicted, such as photosynthesis or meiosis. Most teachers and other educators assume that students can work with these models and that they understand why these types of models are being used. In reality, most students do see the connection between these models and real life phenomena, but are unable to reason with these models on a scientific level. For example, the use of models in testing hypotheses is something that is very difficult for students.

The proposed project aims to unravel how this gap in understanding models in biology education can be closed. For this you will focus on different aspects of student understanding, view what is taught in textbooks and biology classes about understanding models, and make suggestions on how we can improve students’ understanding of models and modeling in biology.

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.