What Undergraduates Misunderstand about Stem Cell Research

Kristy L. Halverson, University of Southern Mississippi


As biotechnology-related scientific advances, such as stem cell research (SCR), are increasingly permeating the popular media, it has become ever more important to understand students' ideas about this issue. Very few studies have investigated learners' ideas about biotechnology. Our study was designed to understand the types of alternative conceptions students hold concerning SCR. The qualitative research design allowed us to examine college students' understandings about stem cells and SCR. More specifically, we addressed the following questions: How can alternative conceptions about stem cell topics be categorized? What types of alternative conceptions are most common? Participants included 132 students enrolled in a biotechnology course that focused on the scientific background of biotechnology applications relevant to citizens. In this study, we used an inductive approach to develop a taxonomy of alternative ideas about SCR by analyzing student responses to multiple open-ended data sources. We identified five categories of conceptions: alternative conceptions about what, alternative conceptions about how, alternative conceptions about medical potential, terminology confusion, and political and legal alternative conceptions. In order to improve instruction, it is important to understand students' ideas when entering the classroom. Our findings highlight a need to teach how science can be applied to societal issues and improve science literacy and citizenship.