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University of Washington Bothell researcher receives science prize

Students measure the characteristics of casts of chimpanzee skulls from different stages of development during a class taught by UW Bothell assistant professor Rebecca Price. - Contributed
Students measure the characteristics of casts of chimpanzee skulls from different stages of development during a class taught by UW Bothell assistant professor Rebecca Price.
— image credit: Contributed

For her classroom instruction and research on how science works, UW Bothell assistant professor Rebecca Price was selected as the winner of the monthly Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction from the journal Science.

Her essay, “How We Got Here: An Inquiry-Based Activity About Human Evolution,” focuses on studying human evolution as an example of science. It is included in the Dec. 21 issue of Science. Price is an assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction encourages innovation and excellence by recognizing “outstanding, inquiry-based science education modules.”

In her essay, Price describes a one-week exercise she has used to teach first-year students, seniors, biology majors and non-majors at UW Bothell. In the exercise, students test the hypothesis that different species of hominins evolved by retaining the juvenile characteristics of a chimpanzee-like ancestor.

“We use evidence to challenge the assumption that humans evolved from chimpanzees,” Price says.

Students used casts of chimpanzee skulls from different stages of development: fetal, infant, juvenile, adult female and adult male. They find, observe, and measure characteristics of each skull and then plot the data on a graph. Finally, they compare their chimpanzee to modern humans, Homo erectus, and Lucy. Students also analyzed Ardi, (Ardipithecus ramidus) considered the oldest complete hominid specimen to date.

Price says once students analyze all the available data, they always agree to reject the initial hypothesis. “Students are able to go through a paradigm shift in their own thinking,” Price said. “It’s a wonderful moment. It takes a lot of courage to recognize one’s own misunderstanding and correct it.”

Information from the Science prize is meant to be shared and replicated by other instructors. Price hopes her model will enable other instructors to use evolutionary examples for teaching the process of science. However, it’s not just for courses on evolution.

“This is cutting-edge pedagogy being used to teach science, and it happens to be about evolution,” said Price.

Chimpanzee skulls and collateral material can be costly. Price funded her work in part through start-up funds awarded to her through UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

“Faculty research is a cornerstone of the experience at UW Bothell,” said Susan Jeffords, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. “Rebecca’s work is a terrific example of scholarship and teaching that also translates to the classroom. It will be a model for science educators nationwide.”

 

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