My research centralizes on undergraduate biology education and behavioral ecology. Most of my projects examine students’ conceptions of biological phenomena and aspects that may influence those conceptions. Research projects are listed below. Click on any project to learn more about each project, including publications and selected presentations. For a full list of publications and presentations, please see my CV.

Students’ conceptions of biological phenomena

Origin of alleles

  • Hailey Cockerill is an undergraduate at Michigan State University and a member of the AACR (Automated Analysis of Constructed Response) research group. AACR develops computer-automated tools to analyze students’ writing by creating scoring models that predict human scoring via a combination of computer trained scoring and statistical analyses.
  • She, with the assistance of her mentors, is investigating undergraduate life science majors’ ideas about how new alleles (traits) arise and how they are maintained within a population. To do so, we, along with other AACR members, developed a two-part constructed response question about how an isolated population of buffaloes began to exhibit a new hair color and how a rapid increase in a new hair color occurred. Therefore, this research includes investigating students’ conceptions as well as developing automated computer scoring models.
  • Preliminary analysis of student responses revealed that the majority of students described the scientific idea that new alleles arise via mutations and may be maintained via natural selection. Students often described two possible mechanisms for persistence of the variant: predator-prey relationships and mate choice. Some students had alternative conceptions, such as the new variant emerged because of genetic drift or that the trait was necessary. We are currently obtaining more data and working on developing analytic rubrics. Later, we will create an automated scoring computer model.
  • Example Presentation: Cockerill, H. (mentors: Bierema, A., Merrill, J., & Urban-Lurain, M.). (2017). Undergraduate students’ understanding of the origin of genetic variation: Insights from the Automated Analysis of Constructed Responses. University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 7 April 2017.

Hailey at UURAF


  • Animal Survey ImagesSome terms that students encounter have both scientific and everyday meanings. How do students conceptualize these terms while in a scientific classroom? I, along with Dr. Renee’ Schwartz, Georgia State University, examined upper-level biology majors’ conceptions of the term animal. Animals are multicellular, heterotrophic organisms that do not contain cell walls. The term ‘animal’, on the other hand, is sometimes used in everyday language to mean only vertebrates, only mammals, or non-human animals.
  • We examined, via in–class surveys and post interviews, what first comes to mind when asked to name animals, what they think of when asked about the diversity of the animal kingdom, and which organisms, from a list (see images to the right), they would consider to be animals and why.
  • We discovered that students tended to use everyday definitions of animals when asked to name animals, but applied the scientific definition when asked if an organism was or was not an animal. Some students, though, still struggled with the scientific definition of animal and did not realize that all animals are multicellular and some are primarily sessile.
  • Publication: Bierema, A. M.-K., & Schwartz, R. S. (2015). Undergraduate biology students’ interpretations of the term ‘animal.’ Anthrozoös, 28(3), 371-383. DOI 10.1080/08927936.2015.1052269. (Download PDF)


Students’ conceptions of biologists

  • Draw-a-Scientist imageMadi Kraus, Jalpa Patel, and Shais Raza are undergraduates at Michigan State University. They, with my mentorship, are researching undergraduate life science majors’ ideas about biologists.
  • We are analyzing data collected at certain points during a two-semester introductory biology sequence. Data include Draw-a-Scientist forms completed at the beginning and end of each semester, end-of-semester written reflections and interviews.
  • Preliminary analysis shows that many students changed or refined their perceptions of biologists during a single semester. Major patterns include more students drawing female biologists and less students drawing biologists wearing eyeglasses and lab coats.
  • Example Presentation: Kraus, M., Patel, J., & Raza, S. (mentor: Bierema, A.). (2017). The change in an undergraduate’s perception of a biologist. University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 7 April 2017.

Madi Jalpa & Shais CREATE Conference

Student engagement in scientific practices

  • Students can participate in a variety of scientific practices. My research has focused on student engagement in scientific modeling. I, along with Dr. Jon Stoltzfus and Dr. Christina Schwarz, Michigan State University, are examining what students do while they participate in in-class team modeling activities.
  • To investigate if undergraduate students productively engaged in scientific practices during modeling activities, we recorded groups of students as they developed models and examined three characteristics: how students 1) interacted with one another, 2) made sense of phenomena, and 3) justified their ideas.
  • Our analysis indicates that students spent most of the time on task, developing and evaluating their models. Moreover, they worked cooperatively to make sense of core ideas and justified their ideas to one another throughout the activities. These results demonstrate that, when provided with the opportunity to develop models during class, students in large-enrollment lecture courses can productively engage in scientific practices.
  • Conference Proceedings: Bierema, A. M.-K., Stoltzfus, J. R., & Schwarz, C. V. (2015). The role of sense-making in undergraduate modeling activities. In Baumgartner, E. & Daniel, K. (committee co-chairs). Proceedings:  2015 Biology Education Research Symposium, NABT (National Association of Biology Teachers) Professional Development Conference, Providence, RI, 12 November 2015. (Download PDF)Model

Model 2 image


Textbook and primary literature alignment

  • Whether it is the best method or not, textbooks often drive the development of curricula. Does the use of central ideas in textbooks align with how those ideas are studied? I worked with Dr. Renee’ Schwartz, Georgia State University, and Dr. Sharon Gill, Western Michigan University, to investigate the alignment between animal behavior textbooks and primary literature using a conceptual framework developed by Tinbergen (1963). This framework identified four mains ways to investigate a behavior. Biologists of behavior may investigate the survival value, causation, ontogeny, and evolution of a behavior.
  • We found that both textbooks and primary literature overall focused on survival value and causation, and, to a lesser extent, they also covered ontogeny and evolution. Alignment occurred between textbooks and primary literature but not between textbooks and high-impact animal behavior journals, suggesting that textbook authors incorporate research from a wide range of journals.
  • Because no current standard methodology exists for researching textbooks, we used this study as an opportunity to develop a methodology for future researchers to investigate alignment between textbooks and primary literature of various disciplines.
  • Manuscript: Bierema, A. M.-K., Schwartz, R. S., & Gill, S. A. (2017). To what extent does current research and textbook content align? A methodology and case study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Early View. DOI:10.1002/tea.21399. WMU Presentation   NABT Presentation


Researcher bias

  • As education researchers investigate student learning and understanding, we need to be aware of our potential bias. This study is part of AACR (Automated Analysis of Constructed Response) research. AACR develops computer-automated tools to analyze students’ writing by creating scoring models that predict human scoring via a combination of computer trained scoring and statistical analyses.  I, along with Anne-Marie Hoskinson, Rosa Moscarella, Alex LyfordKevin Haudek, John Merrill, and Mark Urban-Lurain, investigated whether we could identify and quantify confirmation bias in three education researchers during content analysis.
  • We found that experts show bias when they have access to computer-predicted codes and that these biases are manifested even when coders are aware of their own likelihood of presenting bias.
  • Example Presentation: Bierema, A., Hoskinson, A.M., Moscarella, R., Haudek, K., Merrill, J., & Urban-Lurain, M. (2016). The effects of random assortment and blinding on qualitative data analysis. Poster Presentation. SABER (The Society for the Advancement of Biology Education) National Meeting 2016, Twin Cities, Minnesota, 14-17 July 2016. (Download Abstract)


Avian alarm calling

  • Many avian species produce alarm calls when Back Cameraperceiving a threat. I, along with Dr. Sharon Gill, Western Michigan University, are investigating if yellow warblers’ alarm calls indicate the level of urgency in the perceived threat.
  • During yellow warbler incubation periods, we performed playback experiments of yellow warbler alarm calls and did predator and brood
    parasite taxidermy mount experiments. We varied the threat level by using playback recordings with varied number of calls per second and setting up taxidermy mounts at different distances from the nest.  Data include recorded calls and behavior observations of yellow warbler pairs.
  • Madi Kraus, an undergraduate at Michigan State Ecology ResearchUniversity, recently joined the research project and is analyzing recorded call structures.
  • Invited review paper: Gill, S. A., & Bierema, A. M.-K. (2013). On the meaning of alarm calls: A review of functional reference in avian alarm calling. Ethology, 119(6), 449-461. DOI 10.1111/eth.12097. (Download PDF)


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