Addressing the Challenge of Authentic Inquiry at Scale: Probing and Supporting Teaching Assistants

Lexie Cooper
Graduate Student
The University of Arizona

Need: Evidence suggests that classroom laboratory experiences can provide opportunities for students to participate in authentic science practices and can positively influence rates of undergraduate STEM persistence. Scaling such courses for large numbers of students includes preparing teaching assistants (TAs). We previously designed a course in which introductory students build, test and revise their own models to explain biological phenomena (Authentic Inquiry through Modeling in Biology, AIM-Bio). AIM-Bio resulted in positive student outcomes, in comparison to a traditional laboratory curriculum. AIM-Bio requires instructors to rethink the ways that they interact with students. As STEM education moves to bring authentic science practices into classrooms (e.g., modeling, data interpretation, and experimental design) research has highlighted many challenges for instructors in adapting their role and supporting their students. There is a need to build professional development (PD) that is informed by ongoing research on instructors in inquiry settings. In this project, we are developing a PD program for TAs in the context of a research project to investigate TA reasoning and classroom actions within the AIM-Bio curriculum.

Guiding Questions: (1) What professional development strategies will support TA learning and success in inquiry teaching? (2) What is the relationship between TA intentions and actions when teaching a classroom-based authentic inquiry curriculum?

Outcomes: Using a set of design principles from the literature on teacher education, we developed a PD program for TAs. We are currently refining the PD program through iterative cycles of implementation and assessment. We used a framework that acknowledges TAs’ need for support in curricular content, science skills, pedagogical skills and metacognitive reflection. For example, TAs built their pedagogical skills through discussing episodes of dialog in AIM-Bio classrooms and TAs developed their scientific skills by generating hypotheses within novel biological contexts. Assessment suggests that TAs learned about inquiry teaching through the PD program, applied this learning to their own teaching and achieved positive student outcomes (including gains in students’ science identity and self-efficacy). Thus far, 23 TAs have participated in our research project. We recently published a model highlighting how instructional intentions influence how instructors act to support students in the classroom. We applied this model to analyze TA interviews and classroom audio recordings. Preliminary results include common themes and differences in the ways that TAs reason about and enact inquiry teaching.

Broader Impacts: The PD program we developed will support over 50 TAs per year in inquiry teaching. This will allow us to teach the AIM-Bio curriculum to 1,800 students per year. As a Hispanic Serving Institution, we are focused on supporting the success of our diverse student body. The chance to engage authentically in science at an early stage in their career can influence our students’ decisions to persist in their STEM trajectory. Additionally, the program we developed invests in the development of TAs as teaching scholars with the potential to impact their professional trajectories. With the continued development of this PD program, we aim to build and disseminate modules to assist other institutions in supporting their laboratory TAs.


Lexie Cooper, University of Arizona; Molly Bolger, University of Arizona; Emily Dykstra, University of Arizona