Sara Giordano, Ph.D., Awarded NSF Grant to Study Biology Education And Develop Interdisciplinary Teaching Tool

Dr. Giordano

(Aug 2, 2022)
— Kennesaw State University (KSU) associate professor of Interdisciplinary Studies Sara
Giordano, Ph.D., with their co-investigator Angela Willey, Ph.D., of the University
of Massachusetts (Amherst), have launched a biology education research project funded
by a nearly $600K National Science Foundation (NSF) grant shared between the two universities.
The research, being conducted in three phases over three years, examines how basic
biological sciences are taught at the college level, and the context in which that
body of knowledge has been created.

Phase I, already underway, includes evaluating the most widely used introductory college-level
biology textbooks nationwide. With the support of a research assistant, they also
contacted every college biology instructor in Georgia to identify the most widely
used textbooks and examine syllabi, and will do the same in Massachusetts, to identify
potential geographical or regional differences in teaching materials. Phase II will
examine biology education material from outside traditional biology resources to include
work from feminist, Black, disability, and queer studies scholars, and environmental,
reproductive justice, and healing justice activists. Finally, Phase III will focus
on developing, testing, and deploying open-source teaching modules that offer a holistic
approach to biology education and the biological sciences. Giordano expects an important
outcome of the research will be codifying the research methodology so it may be applied
to other fields of study.

Asked what inspired this research focus, they explained that as a graduate student
of neuroscience on track for their Ph.D., they understood scientific study to be an
objective endeavor where students “just go and learn the truth.” However, working
with intersex, disability, and reproductive justice activists, Giordano realized that
scientific study is siloed and although neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field,
they said “it is still only interdisciplinary within the maths and sciences.” According
to Giordano, this limited scope of biology misses the knowledge activists and scholars
outside proper Biology have contributed. Giordano added that exposure to “feminist
studies and from Black studies, reproductive justice movements, environmental justice
movements, all of these things outside of the academy made me a stronger scientist
inside the academy.” This expanded view led them beyond neuroscience to consider the
ethics, history, and philosophy of scientific study more broadly and to apply that
wider, holistic framework as scientific research creates new knowledge.

The concerns and insights of women, people of color, queer and gender non-conforming
people, and people with disabilities have traditionally been marginalized in scientific
research. “What we [could] imagine about ourselves for the last 100 years…has been
about what we understand the possibilities of our biologies to be. …You hear people
say, well, this is human nature. This is not human nature. The debates are about whether
something is natural or unnatural, whether something’s possible or not misses the
point that all knowledge is constructed in a particular time and place. Biology has
a specific history and the very ideas of natural/unnatural were coproduced through
colonization and the development of capitalism,” said Giordano. “So that means we
do want to get voices that have been marginalized because we think that will change
what truths we come up with.”

This research considers what knowledge about the biological counts as science and
how that has shaped biology education. Giordano emphasized this research starts from
a different perspective that is especially relevant today. This research begins by
asking, “what do we need and want to know about our bodies and environments? In this
moment, I think it’s particularly important [because] we’re seeing huge issues and
debates around the truth about science. I think giving folks skills and resources
to adequately evaluate something like COVID-19 in a broader context is crucial. [For
example,] no virus can be purely biological matter that exists outside of a historical,
economic, and social context. Instead of looking at those as separate things, we add
them together. It’s about how we look at it holistically.”

One potential outcome that is of interest to NSF and other science institutions may
be that approaching biology in this way could increase diversity in STEM by expanding
the scope and breadth of biological science education. However, to Giordano and Willey,
the larger goals have to do with redistributing epistemic authority and resources
towards a more just world. They hope their work will be used by students inside and
outside of traditional academic settings to gain more control over their lives. For
example, feminist movements produced their own materials such as Our Bodies, Ourselves
and the Black Panther Party deployed community sickle cell testing while challenging
racist Biology studies about violence and race. “Some of the most important work then
is claiming space for ‘alternative’ knowledge and helping provide methodologies for
others to truly participate in science,” Giordano said.

When the research concludes, Giordano and their co-PI, Angie Willey, expect to have
created an open-source series of biology teaching modules that are accessible to educators
and the public as a supplement to existing textbooks. Additionally, the methodology
for developing these tools will be firmly established and applicable to other fields
of study.

Sara Giordano has spent more than a decade working in ethics, science education, and
pedagogy after earning a Ph.D. in Neuroscience through the Graduate Division of Biological
and Biomedical Sciences at Emory University. Through this work, Giordano developed
models for interdisciplinary science education using critical science literacy in
university classrooms, reported on these experiments in a range of journals from fields
such as science education, feminist studies, and science studies. Giordano’s training
and experience ensure the research team is well positioned to produce results that
will broaden interdisciplinary biology education in a major way by targeting basic biology
education. Angie Willey, who earned her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies from Emory University,
has an expertise in queer feminist theory, settler colonial and postcolonial studies,
and the history of gender, sexuality, and race in the biosciences. She has been actively
developing curriculum that closes the gaps in biology and feminist and queer theory
since 2013 and co-edited a book (Queer Feminist Science Studies: A Reader 2017), and
double special issue of Catalyst: Feminist, Theory, Technoscience (Science Out of
Feminist Theory Vols 1 & 2 2017), to bring the work of critical theorists engaged
with science’s abstract concepts and material objects into direct conversation. Giordano
and Willey have collaborated for more than a decade on research and curriculum development.