Today’s citizens face profound questions in science that affect both their personal lives and communities. Is it a good idea to submit one’s DNA for genetic testing to screen for potential future diseases? Which forms of clean energy are most efficient and have the least impact on the environment? How can we grow food plants sustainably in changing environments? Developing scientific literacy has become an indispensable element of the skill set that every individual needs (Miller, 2010), and preparing our next generation’s scientists is crucial if the United States is to remain competitive in a technology-focused economy and capable of combating economic security threats and other global challenges (NAS, 2007). According to The Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012), “understanding science and engineering, now more than ever, is essential for every American citizen” (NRC, 2012, p. 1-1). Yet, we are deeply underprepared to participate in and understand the personal and policy impacts of contemporary scientific issues, and this effect is even more pronounced in schools in rural and underprivileged areas (Miller, 2010). For example, in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Alabama respectively, 50%, 44% and 42% of students attend schools in rural areas, with high proportions of minority students. As per the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, advances in agriculture and other areas demand that rural youth be educated in the key issues in science that affect their lives. Further, data confirm that the gulf is deepening between the growing minority population and the proportion of minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (NAS, 2011). Black and Hispanic students in the United States scored significantly lower than White and Asian students on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment science (PISA) test. This achievement gap also exists in school districts with families from a lower socioeconomic status (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). College preparedness is a key factor that influences minority STEM completion rates and, therefore, K–12 education needs to be “major focal point of intervention” (NAS, 2011, p. 56) to attract and prepare students from rural and underserved areas for STEM fields.  

Life sciences, especially the field of biology, are of particular importance for addressing some of today’s complex problems. As mentioned in the recent NRC report, “A New Biology for the 21st Century”, an understanding of living systems is crucial to “finding solutions of major societal needs: sustainable food production, protection of the environment, renewable energy, and improvement in human health” because we “face serious societal challenges in the areas of food, environment, energy and health” (NRC 2009, p. vii), and advances in biology can lead to solutions for all of these. Particularly, the study of processes such as photosynthesis and energy transformation in plants is fundamental to an understanding of such complex issues as sustainability and food production, biofuels, and carbon dioxide and its effect on our environment and climate (NRC, 2009; Galbraith, 2003; Sinatra, Brem, & Evans, 2008). Although knowledge in the life sciences is of critical importance, this is an area in which there are significantly fewer studies examining students’ conceptions than in physics and chemistry (Tanner & Allen, 2005). The in-depth study of plants and plant processes is an oft-neglected area in life sciences curricula. Researchers have expressed concern about the lack of attention to the study of plants compared to animals (e.g., Wandersee & Schussler, 2001), with the study of plant processes often “reduced to little more than the geranium and the potato” (Tranter, 2004, p. 104). Further, students tend to recognize animals as individuals but view plants, if they are recognized at all, as simply a static component in the environment (Lindemann-Matthies, 2002). 

In this project, research teams from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Auburn University will join forces to develop, iteratively refine and evaluate an innovative learning environment, Bio-Sphere, that combines the strengths of hands-on design and engineering, as well as simulations and visualizations of knowledge structures, to foster learning of complex science issues, especially among underserved populations. Our objectives are as follows.

1. Foster a cohesive understanding of science content: We will develop the Bio-Sphere learning environment, to enable an in-depth, cohesive understanding of life sciences content, rather than multiple disconnected topics. At the core of each Bio-Sphere unit is a complex science issue in the form of a design challenge that students will solve by conducting experiments, collecting data, using visualizations in an etextbook, and connecting with the community. The units will provide greater coherence, continuity, sustained instruction focused on uncovering and integrating key ideas over long periods of time (Linn, 2006; Linn & Eylon, 2011), and opportunities to practice science as scientists do (Chinn & Malholtra; 2002; Hoffstein & Lunetta, 2004). 

2. Integrate science and engineering practices: Bio-Sphere units will engage students in the scientific enterprise, by promoting practices such as testing and building of models, using evidence to construct arguments, explaining science phenomena and learning the formal language of science (NRC, 2012). As students work on complex scientific issues, they will engage in an iterative design of engineered solutions, and evaluate multiple solution paths. A major strength of Bio-Sphere is the use of engineering design in biology, a field in which there are fewer instances of curricula that integrate engineering design at the middle school level.  

3. Implement units in rural and underserved areas: As mentioned earlier, the need to provide students with opportunities for the development of robust science knowledge and prepare them for high school and college is even greater in areas with a high proportion of underserved populations. We address this need by primarily working in some of the most resource poor areas in Wisconsin and subsequently expanding our implementations to underserved schools in North Carolina and Alabama. Our units are designed so that they address the issues that are relevant to the world, but we situate them in the local contexts in which we will be working (see examples in the next section).

4. Involve Parents and the community: Research suggests that children, especially in rural areas, learn several science and engineering concepts as part of their daily life (Avery & Kassam, 2011). But these experiences need to be harnessed and tied to the classroom contexts of formal learning. Drawing lessons from research demonstrating success with involving minority parents in mathematics education (Civil, 1998; Bratton, Quintos & Civil, 2004), we hypothesize that engaging a full range of parents in science learning is possible and can strengthen what students are learning in school, as well as develop parent interest in science and help them understand science ideas relevant to citizenship and their everyday lives.

5. Understand variations in implementations across different contexts: A key objective of our work is aligned with two intertwined goals of Design-Based Research (DBR): progressively refining the designed intervention and developing theories of teaching and learning. To address these goals and make sure that our innovations are sustainable and scalable, our methodology includes starting with studies in Wisconsin, extending the implementations to schools in Alabama and North Carolina.
Fostering deep learning of complex biology for building our next generation's scientists.