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The Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center)

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Thesis Defense – Zachary Batz


MST Candidate
Zachary Batz

Thesis Advisor: Michelle K. Smith

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Science in Teaching

August, 2014

 Reaching Struggling Introductory Biology Students with a
Targeted Peer Tutoring Program

Low persistence in STEM majors has long been an area of concern for institutions and educational researchers. The transition from introductory to advanced courses has been identified as a particularly “leaky” point along the STEM pipeline. Students who struggle early in an introductory STEM course rarely show significant improvement over the remainder of the semester. This poor early performance can damage self-efficacy and result in disengagement in the course, negative perceptions of the field, and reduced persistence in the course. This study examined the wide impact of an optional peer tutoring specifically targeted at these students who experience early difficulties in a large-enrollment, introductory biology course. Outcomes were measured using a combination of course performance, course management system data, and self-report surveys. Students who regularly attended peer tutoring were found to have increased engagement in the course, more expert-like perceptions of biology, better exam performance, and increased persistence relative to their peers who were not attending the peer tutoring sessions. Implications of these findings for universities looking to offer targeted academic assistance are discussed within.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014
12:00-1:00 pm
113 Estabrooke Hall



Thesis Defense – April 9 – Shawn Firouzian


MST Candidate
Shahram Shawn Firouzian
Thesis Advisor: Natasha Speer

Thesis Committee:
Natasha M. Speer
Robert Franzosa
John Thompson

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Science in Teaching

May, 2014

Correlations Between Students’ Multiple Ways of Thinking About the Derivative and Their Abilities to Solve Applied Derivative Problems

There is extensive research on students’ understanding, thinking and difficulties with the derivative and applied derivative problems, however there are very little works correlating the two fields. In this study, the correlations between students’ multiple ways of thinking about the derivative and their abilities in solving the applied derivative problems such as related rate and graphing problems are investigated. Fine-grained analysis of the students’ written surveys and clinical interviews revealed that students’ having two or more ways of thinking about the derivative correlate to their higher abilities in solving applied derivative problems.



Wednesday, April 9, 2014
4:30 p.m.
Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium, ESRB

RiSE Colloquium, April 7, 2014 – Eric Pandiscio

Maine Center for Research in STEM Education
(RiSE Center)
Colloquia & Seminar Series


Eric Pandiscio
Department of Exercise Science and STEM Education
Maine RiSE Center, University of Maine

 Differentiated student thinking while solving
a distance vs. time graph problem

 This study probes the thinking of students at different stages of mathematical experience: college students who have taken calculus; college students who have not taken calculus; current high school mathematics teachers; graduate students in a discipline-based mathematics education program.  The study asks:

Using a covariational framework (Carlson, Jacobs, Coe, Larsen & Hsu, 2002), preliminary data reveal many students have difficulty working with phenomena that display varying rates of change.  Data also indicate many students estimate answers, even when an exact answer is possible.  Data were collected via written surveys and semi-structured oral interviews.  This work builds on, yet diverges from, prior research in physics education (McDermott, Rosenquist & van Zee, 1987; Thornton & Sokoloff, 1990; Kim & Kim, 2005), and mathematics education (Chiu, Kessel, Moschkovich & Munch-Nunez, 2001; Moschkovich, 1996) that describes difficulties students have with graph interpretation.

  Monday,  April 7, 2014
3:00-4:00 pm
Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium, 165 Barrows Hall

RiSE Colloquium – March 17, 2014 – Lauren Barth-Cohen, Speaker

Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center)
Colloquia & Seminar Series


Lauren Barth-Cohen, PhD
Post-Doctoral Research and Teaching Associate
Center for Research in STEM Education, University of Maine

Evidence Construction in a Field Geology Environment

 Abstract: Evidence is key to many scientific practices including argumentation, explanation, and modeling. For learners engaged in scientific practices, often we aim for them to construct scientific evidence from observations in the world, but the details of how learners go from observation to verbal accounts of evidence in support of a claim in a complicated environment has been overlooked.  In this talk we argue that much can be learned about scientific practices from examining how evidence is constructed from human sensory data. We present a case of one teacher who was involved in an evidence construction activity as part of a professional development workshop in a field geology environment. Using theoretical machinery from coordination class theory we model the evidence construction process, specifically how observations as connected with prior knowledge turn into evidence for a claim.  Use this model we illuminate the teacher constructing evidence to support a claim for the relative ages of two types of rocks in the field, and we also use the model to illustrate her constructing hypothetical evidence to support an alternative claim. This case illustrates the importance of a commonly overlooked dimension of scientific practices, and implications suggest that  evidence construction is applicable to both instruction and professional development.

Monday,  March 17, 2014
3:00 pm

 Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium, 165 Barrows Hall

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February 3 RiSE Colloquium – Paula Lemon, speaker

Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center)
Colloquia & Seminar Series


Paula Lemons
Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Georgia

Helping Biology Students Develop Problem-Solving Skills


Based on economic projections, about one million more U.S. STEM professionals will be needed over the next decade to fill positions in fast-growing occupations that require problem solving. Yet little is known about the development of problem-solving skills among undergraduate biology students. It is also not known how to support college faculty who want to change their courses in order to promote problem solving. Dr. Lemons developed a method for creating biology questions that encourage problem solving, and she used these questions to document the particular problem-solving steps used by students. Her work revealed that students practice a mixture of helpful and not helpful problem-solving steps. Faculty can use this research by coaching their students to use helpful problem-solving steps. Unfortunately, many faculty who want to guide their students in problem solving face the challenge of transitioning from instructor-centered to learner-centered teaching. Dr. Lemons studied faculty who were making this transition. Her work shows that faculty focus primarily on personal experience, not empirical evidence, when making decisions about teaching. These studies point to ways to increase the amount of learning about problem solving in undergraduate biology classrooms by supporting both students and faculty.


Monday,  February 3, 2014
3:00 – 4:00 pm
Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium, 165 Barrows Hall

 Snacks will be provided at 2:45 in the Hill Auditorium Lobby.

for a Printable page, please click Colloq February 3 2013.

December 2 Colloquium – Benedikt Harrer

Department of Physics & Astronomy
University of Maine


Benedikt Harrer
Ph.D. Candidate


A growing program of research in science education acknowledges the beginnings of disciplinary reasoning in students’ ideas and seeks to inform instruction that responds productively to these disciplinary progenitors in the moment to foster their development into sophisticated scientific practice. This dissertation examines secondary school students’ ideas about energy for progenitors of disciplinary knowledge and practice. Previously, researchers argued that students’ ideas about energy were constrained by stable and coherent conceptual structures that conflicted with an assumed unified scientific conception and therefore needed to be replaced. These researchers did not attend to the productive elements in students’ ideas about energy.

To analyze the disciplinary substance in students’ ideas, a theoretical perspective was developed that extends Hammer et al.’s resources framework (Hammer et al., 2005. Resources, framing, and transfer. In Mestre, Ed., Transfer of Learning: Research and Perspectives, 89-120. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing). This elaboration allows for the identification of disciplinary productive resources—i.e., appropriately activated declarative and procedural pieces of knowledge—in individual students’ utterances as well as in the interactions of multiple learners engaged in group learning activities.

Using this framework, original interview transcripts from one of the most influential studies of students’ ideas about energy (Watts, 1983. Some alternative views of energy. Physics Education, 18/5, 213-217) were analyzed. Disciplinary productive resources regarding the ontology of energy, indicators for energy, and mechanistic reasoning about energy were found to be activated by interviewed students. These valuable aspects were not recognized by the original author. An interpretive analysis of video recorded student-centered discourse in rural Maine middle schools was carried out to find cases of resource activation in classroom discussions. Several cases of disciplinary productive resources regarding the nature of energy and its forms as well as the construction of a mechanistic energy story were identified and richly described.

Like energy, resources are manifested in various ways. The results of this study imply the necessity of appropriate disciplinary training for teachers that enables them to recognize and productively respond to disciplinary progenitors of the energy concept in students’ ideas.


3:00 pm

Thesis Defense – Daniel Bragdon

Maine Center for Research in STEM Education



MST Candidate
Daniel Bragdon
Thesis Advisor: Dr. Natasha Speer

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Science in Teaching

May 2014

University Students’ Graph Interpretation and Comprehension Abilities

There is an increase in demand for individuals to be successful with graph interpretation. Society is currently lacking individuals who have majored in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), where most courses require linear graph comprehension as a prerequisite skill. The Common Core for State Standards Initiative for Mathematics, Next Generation Science Standards, and the Maine Revised Learning Results all characterize these as skills to be mastered before a student enters high school. Reading information from graphs and making inferences based on graphically-presented information is challenging for students and researchers have documented a variety of difficulties students have with graph comprehension. These difficulties include, among others, having knowledge of the graph context incorrectly influencing graph comprehension, viewing the graph as an iconic representation of the event and confusing slope and height. Being able to extrapolate and make predictions based on graphs is especially challenging for students. This research on graph comprehension has been primarily focused on students in elementary, middle, and high school and findings do not provide definitive answers as to why these difficulties are prevalent or why certain kinds of questions are so difficult. Despite the important role graph comprehension plays in undergraduate students’ learning of STEM content, little is known about the performance and thinking of this population of students. For the present study, college students in introductory mathematics and physics classes were given linear graph comprehension tasks. Data include both written responses and interviews designed to investigate student thinking were conducted with a subset of students. Findings indicate that students answered extrapolation questions incorrectly more often than other questions. On a written in class survey only 67.6% of students correctly answered an extrapolation question correctly, compared to a success rate of 86.7% on interpolation questions. Interview data analysis generated similar results with only 50% of students consistently answering extrapolation questions correctly. Student responses to interpolation questions can be used as a predictor of a student’s success on extrapolation questions. Implications for instruction are discussed along with directions for further research.



Monday, November 18, 2013
3:00 pm
Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium (165 Barrows Hall, ESRB)

November 4 – RiSE Center Colloquium

Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center)
Colloquia & Seminar Series


 Erika Allison
Project Director, MainePSP

Susan McKay
Professor of Physics, Director of the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education, and MainePSP Principal Investigator

The Maine Physical Sciences Partnership (MainePSP)
as a Generator of New Opportunities

During the last six months, faculty members from the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education Research (RiSE Center) have received over $8 million in grants.  This rapid growth in funding, spread among so many different RiSE faculty members, is linked directly to the MainePSP and, in many cases, to the new faculty members that this project has attracted and supported.  Those involved with the MainePSP have sought additional funding to build upon and sustain its work.  In this colloquium, Erika and Susan, with input from other RiSE Center faculty, will talk informally about these new research and programmatic opportunities and how they are important in sustaining the MainePSP’s work and building capacity for future projects involving UMaine and its partners.

Monday, November 4, 2013
3:00 pm
Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium, 165 Barrows Hall

Snacks will be provided at 2:45 in the Hill Auditorium Lobby.

Natasha Speer – October 7 Colloquium

The Maine Center for Research in STEM Education
(RiSE Center)


Natasha M. Speer, Department of Mathematics & Statistics and Maine RiSE Center,
The University of Maine
Brian Frank, Department of Physics & Astronomy,
Middle Tennessee State University

Monday, October 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm
Arthur St. John Hill, ESRB, Barrows Hall

Developing knowledge for teaching velocity and acceleration

Over the past two decades education researchers have demonstrated that various types of knowledge, including pedagogical content knowledge, influence teachers’ instructional practices and their students’ learning opportunities. Findings suggest that by engaging in the work of teaching, teachers acquire knowledge of how students think, but we have not yet captured this learning as it occurs. We examined whether novice instructors can develop such knowledge via the activities of attending to student work and we identified mechanisms by which such knowledge development occurs. Data come from interviews with physics graduate teaching assistants as they examined and discussed students’ written work on problems involving rates of change. During those discussions, some instructors appear to develop new knowledge–either about students’ thinking or about the content—and others did not. We compare and contrast three cases representing a range of outcomes and identify factors that enabled some instructors to build new knowledge.



Natasha Speer is faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at UMaine and is also a member of the Maine Research in STEM Education Center. The focus of her work is on the teaching and learning of college level mathematics. She researches the knowledge teachers use when teaching calculus. In particular, she examines the kinds of knowledge needed by teachers to facilitate mathematically productive classroom discussions. She also conducts research into how graduate students learn to teach and is involved in a variety of projects to develop and provide teaching-related professional development for novice teachers of college mathematics.

Brian Frank is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Middle Tennessee State University, where he conducts physics education research and prepares future physics teachers. His research focuses on knowledge development in pre-service physics teachers and student engagement with physics outside of the classroom.

Oral Thesis Defense – Nitisha Mitchell

The University of Maine and the
Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center)


MST Candidate: Nitisha Mitchell
Thesis Advisor: Leonard Kass

An Abstract of the Thesis Submitted
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Degree of Master of Science in Teaching

August, 2013

Student Understanding of Cardiovascular Physiology:
The relationship between pressure, flow, and resistance

An Introductory course in Anatomy and Physiology is an essential body of knowledge for students ranging from nursing to pre-medical training. Although, there are a range of professional careers that require students to take anatomy and physiology, not much research has been done to examine content issues students may have.  An investigation of students enrolled in an introductory anatomy and physiology course and an advanced physiology course, at the University of Maine, will be used to determine if this population of students understands cardiovascular phenomena, such as pressure/flow/resistance, or do they simply memorize terms associated with the physiology of the system?  A previous study done by Michael’s and his colleagues, in 2002, found that students have difficulty understanding the relationship between cardiac output, mean arterial pressure, and peripheral resistance.  With this information I developed ten-question survey where each question altered one or more variables in the equation: Cardiac Output = Mean arterial Pressure / Peripheral Resistance.  The present study was conducted in order to examine whether the findings from that previous research could be applied to physiology coursework delivered at the University of Maine.  Recommendations are made based-upon these findings.

Monday, July 1, 2013
1 pm
Arthur St. John Hill Auditorium
165 Barrows Hall


Past Center News

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Contact Information

The Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center)
5727 Estabrooke Hall
Orono, Maine 04469-5727
Phone: (207) 581-4672 | Fax: (207) 581-9555E-mail:
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469