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

Dr. Giordano smiling at the camera
Dr. Giordano

KENNESAW, Ga. (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.