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Molly Bolger

Blurred image of the arch used as background for stylistic purposes.
Associate Professor

The Bolger lab focuses on understanding and supporting students’ development as scientists. Our overarching goals are: 1) to promote undergraduates’ abilities to reason flexibly, to generate scientific ideas and to take a critical stance towards scientific evidence; and 2) to build students’ confidence in their scientific abilities. This work requires fundamental research on how scientific reasoning develops in educational environments and how these environments may influence students’ motivation and framing of their own participation in science. This work also requires investment in educational infrastructure through design of novel curricula, innovative teaching approaches, and professional development programs for educators. 

Dr. Bolger began her career as a Cellular Biology PhD student with a passion for science outreach and working with K-12 teachers. She developed her interests as a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University, where she conducted research in the learning sciences and educational psychology, primarily focused on mechanistic reasoning. In 2011, she began her work in undergraduate biology education as an Assistant Professor in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona, where she continued until 2023. In her current position, Dr. Bolger is enthusiastic to continue her ongoing research and to collaborate with the vibrant discipline-based-education research community at UGA. 

Mechanisms that underly the learning processes of science

Our research focuses on understanding how newcomers to science learn to productively participate in the everyday “practices” of doing science, such as building and refining models, designing research experiments and interpreting data. In particular, we are fascinated by the forms of generative reasoning about scientific mechanisms that can be fostered through the scientific practice of modeling. While much is known about model-based-reasoning among scientists, we are only beginning to understand how these forms of reasoning may develop over time among undergraduate students as they participate in research activities. Even less is understood about how novice scientists develop strategies for productively selecting a research question and experimental approach. Our work uncovers these processes of scientific development and how they are influenced by the learning context. Building an understanding of how these complex cognitive processes develop has implications for improvement of undergraduate and graduate science programs.


A traditional focus on scientific reasoning can inadvertently paint an inaccurate picture of a solitary individual lost in a train of logical thought. However, science in reality is a highly social endeavor in which practices of science are inextricably linked to the interactions within scientific communities. Communities of science practice impact how newcomers learn to participate in science, but they have also been shown to have a profound impact on how one sees themselves and their role in science. Our research explores how students’ science identity and self-efficacy are impacted through participation in communities of science practice. These aspects of scientific development are relevant for understanding issues of STEM persistence, particularly among individuals from groups that are often excluded from science participation. Our ongoing research includes a longitudinal project to understand STEM persistence among students at a Hispanic-Serving Institution. 


Science-Practice Based Curriculum and Instruction

Our research in undergraduate biology classrooms emphasizes rethinking the goals and structures of curricula and instructional approaches. We have designed and tested curricula that have been used and adapted at multiple institutions, including “TRIM” (Teaching Real Data Interpretation through Modeling) and “AIM-BIO” (Authentic Inquiry through Modeling in Biology). These curricula focus on engaging students in many of the cognitive and social aspects of scientific research in a classroom setting. Our research in these settings demonstrates many reasons that science curricula should provide opportunities for students to participate in science practices, ranging from development of scientific skills to building of a science identity. Importantly, science-practice focused instruction requires an instructional approach that differs from what most instructors have previously experienced. Our most recent NSF-funded project has focused on building a professional development program to support large-scale implementation of the AIM-Bio laboratory curriculum by teaching assistants. Research in this context has revealed nuanced differences in instructor reasoning, as related to the in-the-moment decisions instructors make when supporting students through a model-based-inquiry. 

Cooper, Alexandra C., and Molly S. Bolger. (2023) "The Classroom‐Research‐Mentoring Framework: A lens for understanding science practice‐based instruction." Science


Cooper, A. C., Southard, K. M., Osness, J. B., & Bolger, M. S. (2022). The Instructor’s Role in a Model-Based Inquiry Laboratory: Characterizing Instructor Supports and Intentions in Teaching Authentic Scientific Practices. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 21(1), ar9.


Bolger, M. S., Osness, J. B., Gouvea, J. S., & Cooper, A. C. (2021). Supporting Scientific Practice through Model-Based Inquiry: A Students’-Eye View of Grappling with Data, Uncertainty, and Community in a Laboratory Experience. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(4), ar59.


Hester, S. D., Nadler, M., Katcher, J., Elfring, L. K., Dykstra, E., Rezende, L. F., & Bolger, M. S. (2018). Authentic Inquiry through Modeling in Biology (AIM-Bio): An Introductory Laboratory Curriculum That Increases Undergraduates’ Scientific Agency and Skills. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(4), ar63.


Ufnar, J. A., Bolger, M., & Shepherd, V. L. (2017). A retrospective study of a scientist in the classroom partnership program. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 21(3), 69-96.


Southard, K. M., Espindola, M. R., Zaepfel, S. D., & Bolger, M. S. (2017). Generative mechanistic explanation building in undergraduate molecular and cellular biology. International Journal of Science Education, 39(13), 1795-1829.


Zagallo, P., Meddleton, S., & Bolger, M. S. (2016). Teaching real data interpretation with models (TRIM): Analysis of student dialogue in a large-enrollment cell and developmental biology course. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(2), ar17.


Southard, K., Wince, T., Meddleton, S., & Bolger, M. S. (2016). Features of knowledge building in biology: Understanding undergraduate students’ ideas about molecular mechanisms. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(1), ar7.


Talanquer, V., Bolge\r M.S., Tomanek D. (2015). Exploring Prospective Teachers’ Assessment Practices: Noticing and Interpreting Student Understanding in the Assessment of Written Work. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(5): 585-609.


Kim, D., & Bolger, M. (2017). Analysis of Korean elementary pre-service teachers’ changing attitudes about integrated STEAM pedagogy through developing lesson plans. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 15(4), 587-605.


Bolger, M.S., Kobiela, M.A., Weinberg, P.J., Lehrer, R. (2012). Children’s Mechanistic Reasoning. Cognition and Instruction, 30(2): 170-206.

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Head of the Department: Dr. Dennis Kyle