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Using Interactive Case Studies to Meet the New Science Standards

Dr. Tom Robertson
Co-Founder and CEO of Cogent Education

December 2016

Dr. Tom Robertson was a medical researcher for 20 years and an associate professor at the University of Georgia where he founded Cogent Education with a team of 6 faculty members.

Across the nation, new science standards aimed at helping students acquire the skills needed for successful careers in science-based industries are being adopted. The new standards present a significant challenge for schools and teachers, especially at the high school level where the science is more difficult. Let’s start by looking at how the standards have changed and the implications for science curricula and assessment.

The new standards: A switch from “Know what?” to “Know how”

In the past, knowing facts had value, and if you didn’t know the facts, you had to walk to a library to look them up and learn them. The emphasis on facts led to content-based curricula, which was further reinforced by the push for standardized testing. Facts are easy to test for, so we ended up with a system that focused too much on the memorization of facts for tests. 

Today, we can easily access the sum of human knowledge through smartphones, and knowing facts has little value in the workplace. The new standards place more emphasis on scientific practices, critical thinking, and the application of knowledge to solve science problems. As scientists, we welcome this shift in standards, but we also know teachers need new resources to meet the new standards. 

Why did Cogent Education make interactive case studies?

The short answer is because teachers told us to make them! Our study group consisted of scientists, clinicians, digital artists, programmers, and education researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA). In 2008, we won a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health that partnered our team with the most important people in science education—teachers!

We asked teachers how we could engage their students, and they told us that students liked case studies because they helped make the science relevant to the real world. We decided to use digital technologies to make case studies that immersed students in cellular and molecular worlds in which they were no longer passengers in their learning, but acting as scientists to solve real-world problems.

Tell us where it hurts . . .

We asked teachers to identify the science concepts that their students struggle the most to master, and then we took each concept and placed it in the context of a real-world problem. For example, osmosis is usually taught with slices of potato or dialysis tubing, neither of which are very applicable to the real world. In the interactive case, however, students learn about osmosis while taking on the role of a veterinarian tasked with helping a calf who is having seizures.

Scientific practices, science careers, and the real world

Scientists solve real-world problems by applying the scientific method and the science practices therein. The Interactive Cases are guided inquiries that help students experience this first-hand as they learn the science, collect, analyze, and interpret data, form and test hypotheses, and then communicate their findings. These steps correlate to the science practices in the new standards, and while the steps themselves do not change from case to case, the science professions involved do. Depending on the case, students might find themselves playing the role of a nurse practitioner, an EPA engineer, a physician, or a marine biologist. 

Cogent Education’s Interactive Cases™ help students realize that success in the science classroom can lead to many different rewarding careers. By presenting students with a variety of scientific professions and the real-world problems associated with each, students can see the relevance behind what they’re learning. As one teacher told us, “The best thing about the interactive cases is that they help teach the ‘So What?’ of science.”

The cases are great, but we need help!

Teachers told us that software can often make them feel isolated from their students. They knew their students were engaged, but they felt a little sidelined. So we worked with teachers to develop a real-time system to instantly provide the data they needed to be in the moment with their students. As students work though a case, they are assessed at each step, and the data is sent to teachers in real-time and transformed into an easy-to-read heat map. This enables teachers to see where every student is in the case and to identify students that may be struggling with a particular concept or skill and intervene immediately. 

This real-time data system (SABLE) is a formative assessment tool developed with teachers, for teachers. Text written by students also appears in real-time, and teachers can assign points for these responses and leave comments for their students. At the click of a button, all of the assessments are sorted into scientific practices (aligned to standards) such that teachers are now able to track the development of students’ skills as they complete more cases.

The research

Researchers from the College of Education at UGA concluded that all levels of students were engaged, and the effects of the cases on student learning was “staggering.” As students completed more cases, their critical thinking abilities also improved—and then improved even more once we added the real-time data for teachers. This study is now in its 5th year, and we have used the research to refine the cases.

How to use the cases and what to expect

Because everything we do is developed with teachers, we tried to make the cases as flexible as possible. You can use them as introductions, as part of the course unit, or as reviews. You can also use them as part of a flipped classroom. Students can use them at home on their devices, or they can begin or finish a case at home. (They can pick up where they left off on different devices as their progress is automatically saved.)

The research shows that students improve as they practice and complete more cases. Here, we want students to practice critical thinking and develop the mindset of scientists. Our aim was to create tools for teachers that help their students develop the skills they need to solve problems.  If you can turn the skills heat map green by the end of the school year, then your students will have the skills necessary to solve problems not just in science, but in any discipline. 

Cogent Education’s Interactive Cases™ are appropriate for introductory biology, AP® Biology, anatomy and physiology, and environmental science. Chemistry and physics cases are currently in development, and beta versions will be available next year.

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board®, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, these products.

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