Statistics in the Biology Classroom

Saturday at KU Edwards Campus I attended the “Statistics in the Biology Classroom” workshop, the 2nd part of April’s PD opportunities provided the KU Center for STEM Learning (under who the UKanTeach program can be found). You can find my notes, ideas, and instructions for incorporating statistics in the biology classroom using Excel spreadsheets here.

Like last time I won’t rehash everything from my notes and I think continuing a discussion of statistics in biology here on KABT as well as within the document would serve a greater purpose. Brad started the class telling a now classic story of a British woman claiming to tell whether milk was added before or after her tea and then the conversation led to how we could model this using spreadsheets. The conversation weaved its way around the AP curriculum (including which labs different stats can be used in), the sometimes over-reliance on Chi-Square as a statistical test, and how to build students conceptual understanding of stats, distributions, and p-values, without really having to “learn” complicated formulas.

So with that, what does everyone else think? How should statistics be used on biology? How does it look different vertically between grade levels? When and how should students first begin working with modeling statistics?

Question Based Dissections

Question Based Dissections


            I was really affected by an article Brad Williamson posted this January. The article discusses how rarely students get the chance to formulate their own questions in education. Unfortunately, I am often guilty of doing this. To quote a gem from the article:

            “When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school.”

So, I decided to change the way that I run my dissections in zoology. Now, I start by guiding the students to formulate their own questions about an organism. For example, one student group asked, “Why is a sharks liver so big?” To answer this question, they simply had to dissect this part of the shark.

            I had the luxury of having enough sharks to divide between two or three students. So, while one student dissected the other(s) began working on a poster. The poster’s objective was to diagram a relevant picture that helps to answer the question; furthermore students wrote three paragraph explanations of their answers to the question. This, I am thrilled to say, completely eliminated the issue about what to do with students who choose not to perform a dissection. They now had a valuable role in the dissection by doing research, diagramming, and formatting a response to the question.

IMG_0923(Note: that this non-dissecting student is carefully gleaning the dissection guide to get information.)


This student group found “BOYANCY” [sic] to be the reason for sharks’ liver size.

            The final step was the presentation. I was very proud of how well my students presented and listened to other students. For most presentations one student explained the answer to the question by using the poster while another student showed the structures in the anatomy by using a document camera.


A student group presents on how sharks breathe using document camera and poster.

            In the end, the class heard many interesting presentations. One was on how sharks swim from a completely skinned muscle-bearing shark. (This animated presentation was complete with Jaws sound effects). Also, we heard a presentation on shark’s remarkable sense of smell with bisected olfactory bulbs. We heard an in depth explanation of how they digest food, sense electromagnetic fields, fire neurons, reproduce with live young, and how their bite is so powerful. So, even though I didn’t ask each student to dissect the entire shark they were all exposed to the whole shark’s anatomy.

We have now gone through this process twice and I have seen more independently lead inquiry on the part of the students. I have seen improved speech skills. They tend to treat their beasts more “kindly”. That is, I haven’t seen as much mindless hacking at the specimens from students. Also, this method has proved to be easier to grade than some other ways of covering dissections. I still need to push the students so that they don’t settle for superficial answers to their questions. This continues to be the challenge of facilitating effective question based dissections.

Teaching Stats in AP Biology or any Biology for that matter?

April2014 PD

A reminder:
On Saturday, April 26th I’ll be putting on a free half-day workshop that will explore alternative statistical methods for AP Biology classes. These alternatives are simulation models and resampling models. It is my contention that once you and your students develop these skills you’ll find they will work for almost all the analysis one needs for AP Biology. Even cooler—the models are easier for students to understand than trying to explain why those tables they look up work. The models actually are not math intensive. Using these models will help your students develop a good understanding of analysis/statistics and what the heck a p-value really is. And, the models work for almost all types of data. No need to decide which test to use. Finally, these models line up with the goals Common Core mathematics new emphasis on models, analysis and probability.
If you are interested, register with Katrina Rothrock. (You’ll find her email listed in the attached flyer) Even if you don’t register and find yourself free on that day, stop by and take part.

An Example of teaching with GIS

Camden’s post about using technology to allow students to gather field data reminded me about an activity that my Field Ecology students and I completed this past January.  The objective was to use student cell phones, google docs forms, and Edgis to gather fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) leaf nest locations at an urban park close to our school.  The activity enabled my students to get outside and collect squirrel leaf nest (called dreys) locations using their cell phones.  The overall intent was to estimate the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) population from the number of leaf nests in the park.  This activity itself opened up a huge discussion about how accurate our estimate would be.   This discussion triggered quite a literature search by the students to determine what other researchers have found!  As a class we did end up using research literature to help us estimate the fox squirrel population in the park, along with squirrel density and average nest height.  I included the poster that explains the project below.

Squirrel Poster KAS 2014 2

Fruit (Flies) of our Labor

After a long blog hiatus, I thought I would update with the culmination of the pedagogy component of this project (the research is still underway and with several current students planning to spend part of their summer getting some final data and writing the paper, so it should see publication before too long). Missing out on a chance to present, the primary investigator presented our work at the 55th Annual Drosophila Research Conference in beautiful (I assume) San Diego. Our project (weirdly) was viewed with amazement within the larger research community, the idea of letting high school students carry out their own research using research techniques, skills, and concepts typically only seen in the higher education and research community seemed to be unheard of. I hope if nothing else that this is just one example in a long line of many within the teaching community that shows that collaboration between teachers, schools, and research institutions is not only possible, but in fact it is capable of generating authentic research, and more importantly, student interest in biology.

As for a summary of the entire experience for those interested in trying something similar with their own students or to have as a reference, I hope to have something up soon as the year winds down, but for now feel free to comment, contact me, and/or read previous posts.

Education Poster GSA 2014 final

NSTA 2014: More Resources

Thanks to Michael Ralph getting things started.  I would love to have made it to the epigenetics/arabidopsis workshop that he discuss but there is only so much time in a day.  Here are a few of the highlights from my 1 1/2 days at the convention.

Citizen Science with Bats

batconservation  wildlifeacoustics

The world’s leading bat conversation organization, Bat Conservation International ( has teamed up with Wildlife Acoustics, a manufacturer of acoustics equipment for field researchers, to produce a product for educators called the Echo Meter Touch, which is a device that can sense ultrasonic wavelength and transfer that information via a user frienldy and free app available for the iPhone and iPad.  A promotional video will give you the details.

Written details on the product can be found here:  One Echo Meter Touch will set you back $523 and will include the Discover Bats Curriculum Guide produced in conjunction with Bat Conservation International.  The only draw back may be the double flipping your classroom so that you can meet your students in the field at dusk to collect some data.  If I get around to purchasing my own, I’ll let you know more of what I think.  If any of you plan to purchase let me know.  It would be a nice thing to test on our KABT Spring Field Trip.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Birds-of-Paradise Project


Every since I read David Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo” years ago, I have been interested in the Wallace’s independent discover of natural selection and his observations of the Birds-of-Paradise (a part of the larger story of Island Biogeography).  Well now the famed Ornithology Labs at Cornell have developed some curriculum.  I have not explored these activities but in the presentation they showed the work by two of their researchers in capturing video of all 39 species.  I can’t wait to have some time to check it out. – This website contains information on the project to document the 39 Birds-of-Paradise – This site contains the “lessons” that have been developed to teache about the scientific process, natural and sexual selection, and behavior and heritability.


GIS in the Classroom

Today at KU Edwards Campus I attended the “GIS in the Classroom” workshop, part of April’s PD opportunities provided the KU Center for STEM Learning (under who the UKanTeach program can be found). Skipping right to the chase, you can find my notes, ideas, and instructions for using GIS in the classroom here. Most of what I have to say about the workshop can be found there so I’m not going to re-hash much here, in fact I would enjoy comments on KABT as well as within the document, especially ideas on how to engage students in projects involving GIS, which is what part of the workshop was dedicated to. The other main focus was showing how student devices (smartphones and tablets) can be used to do this, no sophisticated GPS systems needed (although they definitely can be used).

I think for biology the primary opportunity this allows for is field sampling. The ways it could be used in the field is pretty vast, not limited to creating trails, collecting probe data, mark and recapture, basic sampling, etc. Obviously the benefit here is quick data collection that is forwarded to a central data sheet (CSV file) that is live and can be uploaded straight to many types of maps for data visualization. In the workshop today we recorded various life stages of dandelions in mowed and unmowed regions of Edwards Campus and uploaded and manipulated that data on a map.

So with that, what does everyone else think? What type of capacity do we visualize students using the technology (even outside of field studies)?

NSTA 2014 – Ideas and Resources

As I sit here among the clouds, thousands of feet in the air speeding back toward the central time zone, I am reflecting upon my time spent in Boston.  The NSTA national conference has drawn to a close and I am making the realization that I have accumulated several exciting ideas that I hope to implement in my classroom over the next year.  Perhaps some of you would be interested in adapting these things for use in your classroom as well.

Epigenetics in Arabidopsis

This is probably one of the most exciting resources for me in this year’s sessions.  A presenter from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories shared an experiment that uses several procedures to elucidate epigenetic regulation of the FWA gene in Arabidopsis thaliana.  The gene is heavily methylated in the wild type phenotype, which leads to normal flowering.  The FWA-1 mutant has delayed flowering by a couple weeks, and results from only a lack of silencing at this locus.

The presentation showed resources for growing both phenotypes in the lab and capturing the difference in time lapse (more on this later).  She then went on to show how DNA isolation, PCR, and electrophoresis can be used to show there is only a difference in epigenetic regulation and zero difference in base pair sequence.  This hits my biotechnology objectives in AP Biology in a fantastic, and coherent, way that I have not achieved before.  I even plan to loop my BLAST work in with this experiment, likely as a chance to spiral rather than as primary exposure to the tool.

The kits are sold through Carolina (and likely other suppliers) and a link to the lab manual the presenter shared can be found here.


Arabidopsis thaliana – Wikimedia Commons

Time Lapse in the Classroom

I left the above presentation wondering how I could have my students create their own time lapse videos instead of using the existing videos (which there are, and they’re great by the way).  Enter a session on time lapse videos in the classroom.  A few tricks and an inexpensive resource with a free option make me believe I can actually start doing this with all my students.

Lapse it is the app I found to be the option I am interested in using.  The free features are great, and the pro version is only two bucks and you get all the functionality you could want.  Use some dedicated counter space to allow students to setup their planters and have them use tape to define the corners of their shots.  Each day they can use an iPad, phone, or basic camera to take the same photo each day of their plants.  The pro version of Lapse it will stich all those photos together into a video using any frame rate you choose.  The free version can capture the video within the app, but something this long term will likely need the pro version.

I’m thinking the free version would be great for shooting a lab procedure at some point.  Using ring stands and clamps students can setup an iPad or phone to capture a picture every so often (maybe every 5 or 10 seconds) as they conduct a lab.  In the end they’ll have a brief video of their procedure they could use for peer review or replication by a partner classroom.  If anyone is interested in trying the replication route, let me know!

Biology Rocks

The last session I’m pretty excited about was my own.  While I have been fired up about this content for a while, what makes this worth including now is the 100% redesign of our website.  We are making all our resources available for free, because we want to ensure every teacher that wants lab guides and resources can use them regardless of the financial means of their district.  All the digital resources are free, and even the print resources are now available even lower than our cost.  I’m super excited about this change, and I hope you all are too.  You can find all our stuff at

There was much more available at NSTA than I saw, so I’d be interested to hear from others that were able to attend.  Did you see anything in other sessions that changed your perspective or solved a problem?  NSTA in Boston is over, but the collaboration doesn’t have to be!  Chime in, and let’s get a dialogue started.