Math: EAGER: Assessing Impacts on Student Learning in Mathematics from Inclusion of Biological, Real-World Examples

By Audrey Malagon, Lead Editor of DUE Point

Anyone who has taught calculus knows it is rich with real-life applications, especially in the life sciences. While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that teaching calculus with an eye towards application has a positive impact on student learning, this project team wants to investigate that claim with firm educational research funded through the NSF-DUE EAGER: Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research. Pam Bishop of the National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research (NISER), a PI on this project explains in the answers below how she and her team are working toward this goal.

1. Tell us about your project and the people involved.

There is a common belief that students frequently struggle with mathematical concepts, computations, and applications because they do not see a direct connection between the mathematics they are studying and, for example, their academic discipline interests. Our project team is developing tools for both instructors and educational researchers to assess the impacts on student learning in mathematics from including biological, real-world examples. Our team includes myself (Pam Bishop), an expert in educational project evaluation, and Kelly Sturner, a science education expert. We also have Louis Gross and Suzanne Lenhart, who spent several years developing a text that covered quantitative ideas appropriate for life science students, building around biological examples with data.

2. NSF grants are competitive - what do you think it is that set your proposal apart and got the project funded?

Our project deals with a critical question in mathematics education about which there has been virtually no research: Does placing the mathematics in a concrete, real-world context help students learn and understand the mathematical ideas and enhance their skills in applying the mathematics? There were several preliminary versions of this project, and we had a lot of discussion with DUE project officers over several years. Eventually, we submitted a full proposal that was funded.

3. What have you learned so far in this project? What’s the biggest change/adjustment you’ve had to make?

We have found that it is possible to build a validated assessment instrument, the Biology Calculus Concept Inventory or BCCI, with the capability to address the impacts of concrete biological examples in mathematics courses. We started by looking at many quantitative concepts related to biology, but we quickly realized we needed to tighten our objectives around just calculus concepts, since so many life science students only take a calculus-focused mathematics course.

4. Tell us about the impact you hope your project will have.

With this tool, instructors can reinforce the importance of quantitative concepts from calculus in meeting biology learning goals and assess how effective different educational methods are for student comprehension. Educational researchers will also now be able to formally investigate this question of the impact of real-world context on mathematical understanding using our assessment tool. They can compare different modes for teaching calculus to life science students and compare standard calculus courses for life science students to those that include extensive biological motivation.

Already, Robin Taylor, a postdoctoral fellow with expertise in educational evaluation, has carried out surveys using the instrument and plans to publish her results. We hope the information we learn from the use of the BCCI will foster the development of guidelines for how inclusion of concrete examples in mathematics courses may (or may not) enhance learning and lead to more efficient educational models in interdisciplinary science. At the national level, we hope our instrument will serve as a model to assess the impact of interdisciplinary examples on enhancing mathematical and quantitative comprehension and skill development.

Editor’s note: Q&A responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Learn more about NSF DUE 1544375

Full Project Name: Math: EAGER: Assessing Impacts on Student Learning in Mathematics from Inclusion of Biological, Real-World Examples

NSF Abstract Link:

Project Contact: Dr. Louis Gross,

For more information on any of these programs, follow the links, and follow these blog posts! This blog is a project of the Mathematical Association of America, produced with financial support of NSF DUE Grant #1626337.

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Audrey Malagon is lead editor of DUE Point and a Batten Associate Professor of Mathematics at Virginia Wesleyan University with research interests in inquiry based and active learning, election security, and Lie algebras. Find her on Twitter @malagonmath.