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CellTweets: Demystifying Real-World Science, Grants and All, for First-Year Undergraduates

CellTweets #7   Demystifying Real-World Science, Grants and All, for First-Year Undergraduates

CREATE Cornerstone: Introduction to Scientific Thinking, a New Course for STEM-Interested Freshmen, Demystifies Scientific Thinking through Analysis of Scientific Literature. Gottesman AJ, Hoskins SG (2013). CBE Life Sci Educ 12(1), 59-72 doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-11-0201.

Most first year undergrads think that science is fixed, lives in textbooks, and is only practiced by geniuses. The CREATE teaching method originally developed by Sally Hoskins of City College of New York (CCNY) and Leslie Stevens of University of Texas, Austin, was designed to shatter those illusions. (CREATE is the labored acronym formed from “Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment.”) In a CREATE classroom, students practice such real-world scientific skills as understanding the literature, analyzing data, hypothesizing, and designing new experiments. They even practice persuading peer reviewers to hand over the great wads of cash needed to perform their experiments. Students set up their own NIH-type study sections and submit their experiment proposals for review by these “funding panels.”

The effectiveness of the CREATE method is well established, but because it requires intensive analysis of the primary literature, these benefits have previously been restricted to upper-level biology students. In a new paper in CBELife Sciences Education, Hoskins and co-author Alan Gottesman, also at CCNY, describe a promising pilot study of the CREATE course adapted for freshmen.

The original CREATE course used a “lab meeting” discussion model. After closely analyzing a research article, each student proposes follow-up experiments and submits their proposals to the mock funding panels. This puts their logical and persuasive powers to the test, but also confronts them with the reality of scientific give-and-take. Although each panel applies the same collaboratively devised funding criteria, the panels often disagree as to which proposal to fund.

The entire reading, analysis, and proposal process is repeated for a sequence of several papers from the same lab. At the end of the course, the students email a list of questions to the authors of the original papers, including questions about their career paths. Unsurprisingly, many researchers are flattered to have an entire class interested in their science and their lives.

The CREATE method has previously been shown to improve such difficult-to-teach skills as critical thinking, experimental design, content integration, and understanding the nature of science. However, these previous incarnations of CREATE were designed for upper-level students with biology training. What about first-year undergraduates? Many students who intend to major in biology are bored by introductory courses and put off by rote learning. Could the CREATE method also introduce these students to the creativity and controversy of real-world biology?

In their new study, Hoskins and Gottesman modified the original course into “CREATE Cornerstone” for students with no previous training in biology. To make this possible, the class warms up to analysis of primary literature using popular press articles. This gives them practice in critical reading, examining experimental design, and proposing new experiments—skills that they eventually put to use in analyzing research articles about the ability of babies to recognize social actions in “characters” (e.g., blocks of wood bearing googly eyes).

The 26 students in the pilot study made significant gains in outcomes such as the ability to evaluate and interpret information, design experiments, and understand the nature of scientific knowledge. While the sample size was small, the results were intriguing because few approaches have been shown to budge critical-thinking skills in freshmen and it’s difficult to change students’ beliefs about the nature of science at any class level.

The CREATE format is even bean counter-friendly—it’s a one-semester, relatively inexpensive course with no laboratory component. And if it lives up to its promise, we might end up with a new generation of scientists who’ve already learned to navigate the grant funding process before they write their first R01.

—Cristy Gelling

Created on Wednesday, March 13, 2013

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