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Melanie Peffer

Melanie Peffer

Assistant Professor

School of Biological Sciences
College of Natural and Health Sciences

Contact Information

Ross Hall 1556
Mailing Address
University of Northern Colorado
Biological Sciences
Campus Box 92
Greeley, CO 80639


PostdoctoralLearning Sciences, Georgia State University, Atlanta GA (2014-2016)

Ph.D.Molecular Biology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh PA (2010-2014)

B.S. Molecular Biology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh PA (2005-2009)

Professional/Academic Experience

2016-Present Assisstant Professor, University of Northern Colorado

2014-2016 Postdoctoral Associate, Georgia State University 

Other Experience

Lead Developer, Science Classroom Inquiry (SCI) Simulations

Research/Areas of Interest

My research is interdisciplinary in nature and integrates my experiences as a molecular biologist with training in the learning sciences to create a synergistic program of study. There are two main projects in my lab: (1) students’ science epistemology when engaged in authentic science inquiry and (2) cognitive underpinnings of genetics understanding.  

Assessing science epistemology during authentic science inquiry

Understanding science as a practice, rather than as an abstract collection of knowledge, is critical for science literacy. This emphasis on practice is reflected in recent documents published by the National Research Council about science education at both the K12 and undergraduate levels. Although authentic science practices are widely recognized as important, they can be challenging to address in the classroom due to discipline-specific variability, resource limitations, safety concerns, time constraints, and the need for appropriate scaffolding. As a result, many classroom activities do not model authentic science practices. For example, in the case of science inquiry, students typically perform simple one-variable linear experiments and consequently develop an understanding of science as a static straightforward process.

To address these concerns, I developed a simulation called Science Classroom Inquiry (SCI), designed to give students an authentic science inquiry experience within the confines of a typical classroom. Rather than follow a linear straightforward trajectory, students are scaffolded as they engage in non-linear authentic inquiry about real-world science problems. Initial research demonstrated that adolescents who complete SCI simulations report altered perceptions of what it means to practice science after engaging in SCI simulations (Peffer et al, 2015). While students work through the simulation, their unique inputs and strategies create a distinct profile or path. These paths can be aligned with other metrics to make inferences about the students’ cognitive models and possibly science epistemology (Peffer & Renken, 2015).

Science epistemology refers to the perceptions an individual has about the practice of science. Science epistemology is related to Nature of Science (NOS) which refers to the characteristics that make science distinct from other disciplines. Science epistemology and NOS are related, but distinct, entities and both are acknowledged as important for science literacy. However, because science is conceptualized in a variety of ways, it is difficult to precisely define and consequently assess science epistemology/NOS. Current metrics of science epistemology are limited to Likert Scale items and interview protocols and consequently offer a limited view of a student’s epistemology. Other critiques of these survey protocols include concerns that the researcher’s perspective is aligned with the student’s perspective and the necessity to map student responses onto existing frameworks. Others have suggested that it may be possible to view science epistemology as reflected in student practices.

My current work seeks to answer the following questions:

1. Can we detect differences in practices among participants using SCI?

2. How would an expert at authentic science practice differ from a novice as they complete SCI? 

3. What parts of student practices are reflective of their underlying epistemology? 

4. How do practices reflect a students' NOS understanding? 

5. How could SCI be used be used to support student learning? 

Cognitive underpinnings of genetics understanding

Genetics is widely recognized as a difficult subject for students and curricula that places too much emphasis on Mendelian genetics can worsen students’ understanding of complicated genetics concepts. One possible explanation for these conceptual challenges is that genetics understanding requires high demands on the learners’ spatial reasoning. Spatial reasoning is widely recognized as an essential skillset for success in STEM fields. Preliminary work indicated a correlation between spatial reasoning performance and performance on an inventory of commonly misunderstood genetics principles among adolescents. However, this relationship could also be explained by other factors such as intelligence or motivation.

My current work seeks to answer the following questions:

1. When controlling for additional factors, does a relationship between spatial reasoning ability and genetics conception persist? 

2. How could cognitive skills, such as spatial reasoning, be tapped to improve genetics education? 

I am currently recruiting undergraduate and graduate students to my lab. Please contact me for additional information. 

Publications/Creative Works

Peer Reviewed Journal Articles/Books

  1. Peffer, M., & Renken, M. (In Press) Practical Strategies for Collaboration Across Discipline-Based Education Research and Learning Sciences. CBE-LSE.
  2. Renken, M., Peffer, M., Otrel-Cass, K., Girault, I., Chiocarriello, A. (2016) Simulations as Scaffolds in Science Education. Association for Educational Communication and Technology (AECT) Books and Briefs Series. Springer Publishing.
  3. *Frahm, K., *Peffer, M., Zhang, J., Luthra, S., Chakka, A., …& Defranco, D. B. (2015) Dexamethasone Treatment of Hypothalamic Neural/Progenitor Stem Cells Causes Sex-Specific Changes in Gene Expression. MolecularEndocrinology.
  4. Peffer, M.E., Beckler, M, Schunn C, Renken M, Revak A. (2015) Science Classroom Inquiry (SCI): A Novel Simulation to Scaffold Science Learning. PloS one, 10(3).
  5. *Peffer, M.E., *Zhang, J.Y., Umfrey L, Rudine, A., Monaghan-Nichols, A., DeFranco, D.B. (2015). Minireview: The Impact of Antenatal Therapeutic Synthetic Glucocorticoids on the Developing Fetus. Molecular Endocrinology.
  6. **Peffer, M. E., Chandran, U.R. Luthra, S., Volonte, D., Galbiati, F., …& DeFranco, D.B. (2014). Caveolin-1 Regulates Genomic Action of the Glucocorticoid Receptor in Neural Stem Cells. Molecular and Cellular Biology, MCB-01121.

*Co-First Author

**Article featured in MCB spotlight section

Peer Reviewed Conference Proceedings

  1. Peffer, M. E. & Renken, M. (2015). Science Classroom Inquiry (SCI) Simulations for Generating Group-Level Learner Profiles. Poster presentation, 2015 Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Conference.
  2. Peffer, M.E. (2015) A Synergistic Approach to Studying Computer Supported Collaborative Authentic Inquiry and Genetics Understanding in K12 Students. Early Career Workshop Research Summary, 2015 Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Conference. 

Non-Peer Reviewed Articles

  1. Peffer, M. E. (22 June 2015) This Scientist Learned By Doing Science And Your Students Can Too. PBS NOVA Education, Engaging Science 
  2. Peffer, M.E. (29 June 2015) The Pittsburgh Zoo Teaches Youth Science Through Hands-On Inquiry. PBS NOVA Education, Engaging Science 

Honors and Awards

2016 Data Consortium Fellowship

2015 Selected to attend Computer Supported Collaborative Learning’s Early Career Workshop (one of 13)

2015 Travel Grant Recipient, to attend the National Postdoctoral Association Meeting, National Postdoctoral Association, Baltimore, MD (one of 15 awardees)

2011-2013 Predoctoral Fellowship, NIH T32-GM008424, Training Program in Pharmacological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA