Paula P. Lemons, Professor (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) & SEER Center Director
Interviewed by Andrea Horsman
Dr. Paula Lemons, PhD, is a Fellow of the Owens Institute and Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She received her B.S. at Southern Wesleyan University, her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Kentucky, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University.
She has a passion to help students develop a deep understanding of science and the ability to solve real-world problems. During her postdoc years she transitioned to social and behavioral sciences research and became interested in problem solving and assessment. Her career was launched in biology education research, a relatively young interdisciplinary field, in which researchers investigate basic questions about learning, teaching, and the sociocultural context of undergraduate education.
Dr. Lemons is working on several research projects to transform STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. We caught up with her and asked her to share some information about her STEM research and education at the University of Georgia.
How did you first get involved with STEM?
I received my PhD in biochemistry studying basic biology – how blood platelets secrete clotting factors. As a postdoc I transitioned to social and behavioral sciences research and I immediately became interested in problem solving and assessment. I had a passion to help students develop a deep understanding of science and the ability to solve real-world problems. I knew this focus had been lacking in my own education, and I wanted to make a difference.
During those postdoc years, I connected with colleagues with backgrounds in math and science education. They introduced me to research areas that required expert knowledge of science and social science methodologies, including classroom observations, clinical interviews, and qualitative data analysis. These collaborations launched my career in biology education research, a relatively young interdisciplinary field, in which researchers investigate basic questions about learning, teaching, and the sociocultural context of undergraduate education.
Tell me about your involvement in STEM research.
I teach biochemistry and I am conducting research in biochemistry learning. When I was a junior faculty member teaching biochemistry to sophomores and juniors here at UGA, I speculated that life science undergraduates’ early problem-solving skills may have long-term effects. That is, students who solve problems well as early undergrads experience success and that success feeds back to them in positive ways to propel persistence. In contrast, students who struggle to solve problems as early undergrads experience failures that feed back to discourage persistence. Part of my research is examining this idea – and a number of related ideas – in the context of biochemistry-specific problem solving.
Tell me about one of your research projects and why it is important.
In 2014 I was awarded a $900,000+ grant from National Science Foundation for a six year research project entitled, “Problem Solving Skills as Predictors of Success and Persistence in Biology.” This study aims to describe the biochemistry-specific problem-solving skills of life science students as they progress through their undergraduate course work at the University of Georgia. We have assessed the biochemistry problem-solving skills of hundreds of students in introductory biology, intermediate biochemistry, and advanced cell biology. This spring we will complete data collection for a cohort of 200 students who started their life science courses in fall 2016 or spring 2017. We collected cross-sectional data from hundreds of other students.
Through students’ written solutions and interview responses we have pinpointed challenging aspects of biochemistry problem solving. For example, the diagrams and models used for teaching often confuse students and contain implicit information that students miss. Also, students tend to describe biochemical phenomena superficially unless prompted to describe the underlying processes. Our research shows that explicit instruction can overcome these challenges.
This project also aims to identify the relationships among biochemistry problem-solving performance, affective and demographic variables. This summer, with our longitudinal data collection complete, we will use latent growth modeling to determine the changes in biochemistry-specific problem-solving performance over time for our sample of 200 students. Simultaneously, we will investigate the extent to which students’ self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation predict performance and the extent to which gender, URM status, and SES moderate these effects.
Conducting this research in biochemistry is important because biochemistry is one of the key courses taken by STEM majors, particularly pre-health professionals and biochemical or biomedical engineers. Biochemistry also offers an interesting context because students begin learning the basic concepts as early as high school through introductory biology and general chemistry courses, yet they typically do not deeply integrate their knowledge of biology and chemistry until college biochemistry.
Understanding learning challenges is important because surprisingly little is known about what makes science difficult. For biochemistry, we know it is abstract and that students must learn things they cannot see, but the particular stumbling blocks have not all been studied. Uncovering these challenges in detail provides a road map for improving instruction.
Understanding the relationships among problem solving, affective variables, and demographic variables will reveal how the experiences of different types of students vary and suggest ways to intervene to create sociocultural environments that make success and persistence attainable by all students.
What do you find most challenging about this research project?
The most challenging aspects of this research project have been developing assessments and collecting longitudinal data. We cannot directly measure what students know about biochemistry or their ability to apply their knowledge. Instead we depend on indirect measures – students’ responses to problem sets. We spent years developing assessments that passed the scrutiny of experts and the pilot testing of students. Even though we settled on assessment items that have provided rich and meaningful data, we know different assessments would reveal different aspects of student knowledge.
We have relentlessly worked with the UGA Office of Institutional Research and life science instructors to track and collect data from the students in our longitudinal cohort. We attempted to anticipate all paths and scenarios and to create strong incentives for students to complete all the data collection activities. We are pleased with our success, but it has challenged our wits and our patience.
Tell me about some of the people you’ve met through your research.
This project has opened up exciting collaborations at UGA and beyond. At UGA, I collaborate with Allan Cohen, Hye-Jeong Choi, and Logan Fiorella all in the Department of Educational Psychology. Al, Hye-Jeong and I collaborate on the psychometric analyses of our problem-solving assessments. We also are using the biochemistry problem-solving data to test new methods like topic modeling. Topic modeling is a type of statistical modeling that allows for the discovery of “topics” in a collection of documents. We are looking for topics in student writing that may reveal new patterns in student thinking and problem-solving process.
Logan and I collaborate to understand the impact of evidence-based pedagogy on student learning in biochemistry. Logan brings expertise in investigating general learning mechanisms that may apply across educational contexts, and I bring expertise in the particular challenges of learning biochemistry. Together, we aim to test general learning mechanisms in disciplinary contexts that are persistently troublesome for students.
Outside of UGA, this work has led to an exciting collaboration with cognitive psychologist Mark McDaniel (Washington University) and chemistry education researcher Regina Frey (University of Utah) who are interested in individual differences in students learning tendencies that impact their performance in science courses. Specifically, they have shown that some students tend to learn by focusing on examples, while other students tend to learn by abstracting across examples. This tendency is distinct from intelligence or academic achievement. We will be using the biochemistry problem-solving assessments developed for this project to investigate the importance of individual learning tendencies in biochemistry.
Finally, this work has led to collaboration with Jennifer Loertscher at Seattle University. Jennifer specializes in biochemistry education and related research and led a national coalition to determine the most critical concepts in biochemistry education. Jennifer and I work to apply biochemistry education research to the classroom and assist faculty in using the research.
Tell me a little bit about the DeLTA research project.
I am the Principal Investigator for a $3 million NSF funded project called, “Transforming STEM Education at Research 1 University through Multi-Level Action Teams,” that was awarded in 2018.
This project involves over 100 faculty members in biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, physics and statistics working together to explore ways to better support, incentivize and reward effective, evidence-based STEM instruction and are creating, implementing and assessing active learning materials to help students better develop STEM knowledge and skills.
The project is formally known as DeLTA (Department and Leadership Teams for Action), and it is inherently a team effort. My co-principal investigators are Tessa Andrews (Genetics); Peggy Brickman (Plant Biology); and Erin Dolan (Biochemistry and Molecular biology). In addition, Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs Sarah Covert is also a co-principal investigator. We will be working with UGA senior administrators as well as department heads and other collaborators over a five year period on this project.
What do you think/hope will change regarding STEM over the next five years?
In the next five years, I hope more equity will be achieved in STEM education. Currently the majority of students who enter college intending to pursue a degree in STEM leave STEM. This problem disproportionately impacts women, underrepresented minorities, and students from lower socioeconomic status. Discipline-based education research has revealed a number of ways to address this problem. For example, pedagogies that actively engage students in learning can reduce failure and withdraw rates and improve learning gains. We also know that helping students build self-efficacy and science identity can improve their science achievement.
Individual courses and faculty play dramatic roles in maximizing student learning and supporting students to develop the affective characteristics that facilitate their success and persistence in STEM. Yet college faculty do not have training in pedagogy, and research faculty are not typically even evaluated on their teaching. Thus, I also hope that in the next five years, university departments and institutions will act to take undergraduate education more seriously. This will involve a combination of increased support, professional development, and accountability. We need ways to honor the expertise of faculty and help them learn how to roll that expertise into modern teaching approaches that match what we know about student learning.
Where can people go if they want to learn more about your other research?
I lead an interdisciplinary center on campus known as Scientists Engaged in Education Research, or SEER. The SEER Center includes faculty, postdocs, and graduate students across the University of Georgia who perform research in collegiate STEM education. As science and technology continue to expand their relevance for life in the 21st century, and as a scientifically educated workforce is under increasingly short supply, there is a pressing need for solutions to improving science education in the United States, and specifically to transform how science is taught and learned in colleges and universities. Research areas include basic and applied research grounded within STEM disciplines and informed by evidence-based theory in educational and social sciences. Research generated by participants in the Center catalyzes the transformation of STEM teaching and learning locally and nationally.