New ideas in T&L: January

good idea

Featuring MathBench and deconstructing dissemination of educational resourcesLolly_sticks_with_text

Kelly Matthews

This blog post highlights an educational resource freely available to support students’ quantitative skills. The idea of adapting existing educational resources more broadly is explored with implications for how science curricular leaders can foster a culture of dissemination.

MathBench: Online modules for bioscience students

The issue of developing quantitative skills of science students, which underpin the Science Threshold Learning Outcomes, is a common goal and a shared challenge across Australian Universities. Although a shared issue, a 2011 Australian study found many academics inventing – and unknowingly reinventing – educational resources designed to enhance students’ quantitative skills.

The 2010-12 Quantitative Skills (QS) in Science project identified potential educational resources to share and be used across the sector, including the online maths development program MathBench.

MathBench USA was developed by the University of Maryland with funding from the National Science Foundation. The modules focus on mathematics applied in bioscience contexts, including topics such as:

Biologists, in consultation with mathematicians, drove the development of the modules. The idea was to create online modules that were applicable to all undergraduate bioscience students. An evaluation of MathBench showed significant increases in quantitative skills and improved confidence of students. Since its development, MathBench has been used in over 20 American universities.

MathBench USA was featured at the 2012 QS in Science+VIBEnet+CUBEnet Forum with a call for interested network members to come together during lunch time and discuss how MathBench could be used in Australia. This informal call led to MathBench Australia.

MathBench Australia

In 2013 an Office for Learning & Teaching project – MathBench for Australian Universities – was funded to adapt MathBench USA for the Australian context. A team of biologists and mathematicians from seven Australian universities systematically reviewed and revised the USA modules. MathBench Australia was recently launched at the 2015 Bioscience Education Australia Network (BEAN) Conference.

Several pilots of MathBench in Australia have been completed. Initial results align with findings in the USA – MathBench has positive outcomes for students when integrated into the unit learning and assessment activities.

Developing versus disseminating educational resources

Using a proven for academics-by academics resource is ideal and educational resources to build quantitative skills are certainly needed in the biosciences. However, flicking this blog link to colleagues is unlikely to result in their using it.

A growing number of scientists and scholars (here, here, here) dedicated to enhancing undergraduate science education are realising that proving what works in science education and developing effective educational resources does not then lead to peers adopting them.

Dissemination for broader adoption is predicated on educational resources being evidence-based, communicated effectively and then spread from initial context to another context. Essentially, as argued by leading Australian researchers, dissemination is about transfer of an educational innovation within and across universities.

The MathBench USA approach to fostering transfer of the modules involved action planning workshops where academics new to MathBench spent time learning about how the modules worked, considering which modules aligned with their curricular goals, and then drafting a plan for how the modules would be implemented.

The MathBench Australia project built directly on an existing resource and started with seven university partners willing to adapt and then integrate the modules into their units. Each partner agreed to revise the modules, evaluate them using the MathBench USA evaluation tools, and then create a case study of how they integrated the modules into their differing educational context.

In both the USA and Australia projects, the notion of dissemination for transfer was a primary goal. In Australia, our national disciplinary networks played a pivotal role in this dissemination process.

Implications for science curricular leaders

Fostering a culture that encourages dissemination for transfer is the key. Ways to do this include:

  1. Explore existing educational resources to an identified problem
  2. Form collaborative groups to engage in process of redesigning existing resources or developing new ones
  3. Focus on implementation in differing contexts from the start
  4. Encourage and support colleagues to attend national network meetings

If you have a budget for a teaching grants scheme, then require all grants seeking to develop educational resources to:

  1. include an environmental scan of existing resources with rationale for why new resources must be developed instead of using an existing one
  2. propose a plan for how the resource will be implemented across several contexts
  3. require developers to support others in adopting the resource (e.g. action planning workshops)
  4. store educational resources in a public, open access manner (e.g. clearinghouse, website)

If you are thinking MathBench sounds great – facilitate your own action planning workshops in the biosciences! Perhaps a member of the MathBench Australian team could help.

Kelly Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education
Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, Faculty of Science, The University of Queensland