One of the goals of my introductory biology class is to introduce students to data skills alongside learning core concepts in ecology and evolution. I want my students to be able to summarize, visualize, and analyze data, and apply these skills to novel questions in biology. I use HHMI BioInteractive resources to set the stage and tell the story behind the data to engage students beyond just opening a spreadsheet of numbers.
One of the things I like about BioInteractive is that educators can easily modify and adapt their resources for their particular classroom. Often I need to customize an activity to the software platform that my students are using — whether we are starting with Google Sheets and Excel or doing more advanced analyses with JMP or Program R — and scaffold it to the appropriate level of quantitative analysis. Other adjustments may be based on the size of the class or the particular course topic.
Many educators make these types of changes so resources fit their classrooms. For my class, I also look for ways to bring in primary data and challenge my students to wrestle with how it should be organized and presented. This teaching approach can be as simple as giving the students the raw data behind the graphs in the BioInteractive Data Points series and having students produce their own version of the figure. I appreciate that BioInteractive includes citations and links to the primary papers and data associated with their materials, making it easy for me to find additional data and figures when adapting these resources for my classroom.
At the end of the semester, when students have gained confidence in their data skills, I aim to increase the challenge for them through exploring the magnitude and complexity of authentic monitoring data. The BioInteractive Coral Bleaching materials present an excellent synthetic case study for this goal, from providing a clear explanation of the mechanisms of bleaching and telling the stories of scientists working in the field, to providing data on responses of coral to heat stress (along with a companion annotated Science paper) and a global-scale mapping activity.
To supplement the mapping activity, I have students access the sea surface temperature data directly from NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch site. Here they can explore global patterns in sea temperature in near real-time and access past data.
Image Credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch
In my quest to connect sea surface temperature data with actual bleaching damage, I found a mapping activity by Parker et al. (2009), which used data from an extensive study published in PLOS ONE by Eakin et al. (2010).
Instead of providing students the graphs to interpret, I have them download the 2005 data directly from NOAA’s website and wrestle with selecting the relevant time period themselves, as well as reading the metadata to understand the column headings. Students complete this process to ultimately measure the amount of thermal stress experienced by coral reefs in a particular location and compare that against data on the amount of bleaching damage actually observed. (An example graph for four locations is below.) Students are tasked with selecting an appropriate graphing and statistical approach to examine this comparison. Importantly, a case could be made for the selection of different graph types or analyses, leading students to discuss the merits of their choices.
Source: Caribbean Corals In Crisis 2005 data
Data exploration takes a significant investment of class time in order to work through the analysis. This time investment in quantitative skills development is worth the trade-off, and I’ve been pleased to see my students’ confidence in spreadsheet and analysis skills increase and be applied in their future courses and careers. I also see great value in showing students the worth of public data sets and empowering them to realize the questions they can ask with the wealth of data that is openly available to their generation.
This module using HHMI BioInteractive and NOAA educational resources is freely available as an Educator Resource Publication through the Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis (QUBES) project. Other higher ed educator adaptations of HHMI BioInteractive resources are available through the Educator Portal on the QUBES Hub.
Did something in this post resonate with you? Come discuss using authentic data with your students on our Facebook group!
Dr. Kristine Grayson is an assistant professor in the Biology Department at the University of Richmond, where she teaches Ecophysiology, Integrated Biological Principles II, Introduction to Biological Thinking, and Field Ecology. She also chases gypsy moths, salamanders, and aquatic macroinvertebrates in her research lab. Dr. Grayson serves as a facilitator for several Faculty Mentoring Networks in partnership with QUBES and is an organizer of a Research Coordination Network on sharing data-centric teaching resources.
Eakin, C.M., Morgan, J.A., Heron, S.F., Smith, T.B., Liu, G., Alvarez-Filip, L., Baca, B., Bartels, E., Bastidas, C., Bouchon, C. and Brandt, M., 2010. Caribbean corals in crisis: record thermal stress, bleaching, and mortality in 2005. PLOS ONE, 5(11), p.e13969.
Parker, B.A., Christensen, T.R., Heron, S.F., Morgan, J.A. and Eakin, C.M., 2009. A classroom activity using satellite sea surface temperatures to predict coral bleaching. Oceanography, 22(2), pp. 252-257.