Implementing design-based and interdisciplinary approaches for learning laboratory science

Project No.
PI Name
Jamie Fornsaglio
Seton Hill University


Abstract 1

Implementing design-based and interdisciplinary approaches for learning laboratory science

Presentation Type
Jamie Fornsaglio, Seton Hill University Zachary Sheffler, Seton Hill University


For two decades, the performance of American students in math and science has lagged behind many of our international peers. This is partially a result of undergraduate students becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way science is taught in their courses, causing poor retention rates in science fields. Educators need to improve our understanding of how students learn and develop curricula that fosters inquiry and investigation.


The overarching goal of this project is to establish a design-based inquiry approach to teaching advanced laboratory courses at Seton Hill University (SHU) that is interdisciplinary in nature, fosters student and instructor collaboration, and incorporates technology into the learning process. A further goal was to investigate how the proposed curriculum modifications affect teaching and learning, particularly related to higher order skills such as critical thinking, inquiry and analysis, and problem solving. We assessed the effect of this approach on student attitudes toward science.


The curriculum is an interdisciplinary collaboration led by faculty teaching Cell Biology and Chemistry laboratory courses and Mathematics. Students worked in interdisciplinary groups. The analysis of student perception was measured through a pre/post Participant Perception Indicator survey. Online quizzes administered at the beginning of each module are being used to measure gains in critical and analytical thinking skills and student understanding of the process of scientific inquiry.


Faculty training resulted in enhanced pedagogical skills related to the design and assessment of inquiry-based performance tasks. Survey results revealed that studentsï¾’ perceptions regarding their understanding of difficult concepts had significantly improved. Moreover, performance task quiz grades suggested an increase in critical and analytical thinking skills. Compared to their reports during the semester when groups were student-selected, the poorer-performing students had improved overall perception of learning gains by the end of the semester when grouped according to similarities. Furthermore, students enrolled under this modified curriculum demonstrated an enhanced ability to synthesize material across disciplines. Also, students grouped according to similarities had an improvement in their self-reporting in the categories of understanding, skills, and meeting learning objectives. These data will continue to be further assessed and submitted for peer-reviewed publication by early 2016.

Broader Impacts

The project directly impacts approximately 200 STEM students per year at SHU. The virtual laboratories and video tutorials found within our eBooks have been disseminated broadly through their cataloging with the National STEM Distributed Learning services. Globally, this eBook was downloaded 454 times. Our interdisciplinary framework for teaching scientific investigation is being adapted at other programs within and outside SHU. A STEM teaching and learning community has been cultivated at Seton Hill to share professional and curricular development efforts, improve laboratory course instruction, and foster a community of student learners. We have disseminated our findings and the curricular framework through SHU Teaching and Learning Forums, poster sessions, and national conferences. We intend to disseminate results locally (through an research undergraduate symposium) and widespread (through publications and via the SHU website, where rubrics to the end of the semester poster and presentation, laboratory report, and research-oriented cognitive tendencies can be found).

Unexpected Challenges

While modifications to the project were expected (year 2 involved assessing and modifying the curriculum), this group selection modification was not anticipated. The use of to group students in Cell Biology Laboratory into compatible groups was utilized after noting some concerns with self-selection laborory groups. Our findings are indicating that students with lower GPAs have demonstrated more substantial improvements from pre-test to post-test in semesters when we utilized for grouping as oposed to self-selection grouping. Also, during the data analysis step, we noticed that the data obtained from The Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) were not paired. We learned through many back-and-forth discussions that the name of the course for the pre-test contained a capital letter which was excluded from the name of the course for the post-test collection. Because of this, the administrators for the SALG test informed us that the data could not be assessed in a paired fashion. Thus, when analyzing our data using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) we had to use the more stringent unpaired t-test.


Fornsaglio J, Sheffler Z, and Petro M. 2014. Cell Biology Laboratory (Version 1). [eBook from iTunes Store].