Generative mechanistic explanation building in undergraduate molecular and cellular biology*

Katelyn M. Southard, Melissa R. Espindola, Samantha D. Zaepfel, Molly S. Bolger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


When conducting scientific research, experts in molecular and cellular biology (MCB) use specific reasoning strategies to construct mechanistic explanations for the underlying causal features of molecular phenomena. We explored how undergraduate students applied this scientific practice in MCB. Drawing from studies of explanation building among scientists, we created and applied a theoretical framework to explore the strategies students use to construct explanations for ‘novel’ biological phenomena. Specifically, we explored how students navigated the multi-level nature of complex biological systems using generative mechanistic reasoning. Interviews were conducted with introductory and upper-division biology students at a large public university in the United States. Results of qualitative coding revealed key features of students’ explanation building. Students used modular thinking to consider the functional subdivisions of the system, which they ‘filled in’ to varying degrees with mechanistic elements. They also hypothesised the involvement of mechanistic entities and instantiated abstract schema to adapt their explanations to unfamiliar biological contexts. Finally, we explored the flexible thinking that students used to hypothesise the impact of mutations on multi-leveled biological systems. Results revealed a number of ways that students drew mechanistic connections between molecules, functional modules (sets of molecules with an emergent function), cells, tissues, organisms and populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1795-1829
Number of pages35
JournalInternational Journal of Science Education
Issue number13
StatePublished - Sep 2 2017


  • Biology education
  • explanation
  • multi-level mechanistic reasoning
  • science practices

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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