Regardless of our current role in the academe, education—for us and for our students—is central to our identity as scientists. With that in mind, the ASCB Education Committee (EdComm) is pleased to offer Office Hours with EdComm, a column addressing broad issues in education, ranging from career choice to curriculum development to incorporating technology into your lectures. EdComm Members and Associates look forward to answering your questions; please direct them to DearEdComm@ascb.org.
I recently went to an educational conference and was awed by many exciting talks and poster presentations about whole-semester research courses that students take as a substitute for their introductory biology courses. The assessment data show that students learn concepts and understand science better when they practice science themselves. This approach sounds awesome and I am eager to try it. However, I teach in a small school with very limited resources and a very structured curriculum, and I simply do not know where to start. I could not convince my department that our intro biology courses are not the best way to teach students, so I will be teaching once again a “standard” intro biology course with standard, mostly cookbook, labs. What can I do to change my approach to teaching labs and to convince my colleagues? Thanks.
—Bored Teaching Intro Bio Labs
You are not alone! Developing and implementing semester-long undergraduate research lab projects is a daunting task, especially without support from colleagues. An ideal project should include student instruction materials that foster learning of concepts, an innovative and exciting research project that has a high potential to succeed in the hands of undergraduates, embedded student activities aimed at improving students skills in writing and reading, whole-class and group guided discussions, etc. Where do I get all of the materials I need? What if it does not work? What if students do not get good data? What if they do not learn? What if they do not like these labs? These questions could easily make you turn your back on the whole idea of research in the classroom and return to the “checked and verified” labs that you run every year. But wait!
Before you lose interest in undergraduate research labs, try a small change! Next term, modify the labs you run to include the opportunity for students to ask and answer independent research questions. In the modified lab, students may be able to change the components of the system or parameters of the experiments. They may need to do a little research prior to the lab and have a short discussion with their groupmates about the project. And you may need to be more flexible with preparing the materials for the labs and more open to grading lab reports that differ among groups. If you find the labs you always run difficult to modify, look for inquiry-based lab modules that have already been developed for introductory biology courses. (The journals CBE—Life Sciences Education [www.lifescied.org] and CourseSource [http://coursesource.org] are great sources.) Inevitably you will discover that research-driven lab modules take longer, primarily because students need time to read literature, pick a research question, prepare materials, analyze their data, and maybe even present their results to peers during a miniconference or a poster session. And, very importantly, you will realize that it was not too hard after all.
Then you will be ready for a second step: Think about your own research, what excites you and makes you come to the lab, what drives your curiosity and brings joy and satisfaction. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to share this excitement with your students? Think about the aspects of your project that could be done by undergrads. Phenotypic and genetic screens, analysis of large data sets, library screens, and validation of genomics and RNA-Seq data by PCR and q-PCR have been shown to work well in undergraduate classrooms. CUREnet (http://curenet.cns.utexas.edu), a network of educators who are interested in developing undergraduate research projects as a part of the regular curriculum, provides many resources that could be adapted. If your own project is difficult to implement in the classroom, you can likely find one that fits your goals among these projects that have been developed and assessed in the classroom. The topics range from microbiology and ecology to biochemistry and genomics. Many of the projects are multidisciplinary and provide all of the necessary educational and assessment materials for you to start.
The journey you are about to begin will be full of excitement and satisfaction, joy and frustration, anxiety and unexpected turns. One thing I can guarantee: You and, maybe more importantly, your students will not be bored in your intro biology lab. You and your students will learn a lot through this experience. They will learn what a real research project in biology looks like and how exciting science can be. You will learn not to underestimate your students and not to be afraid to try something new! So… Are you ready for your small first step?
—Irina Makarevitch (EdComm member), Hamline University
- For more on ways to engage students in research that go beyond traditional internships, see: Wei CA, Woodin T (2011). Undergraduate research experiences in biology: alternatives to the apprenticeship model. CBE Life Sci Educ 10, 123–131 (www.lifescied.org/content/10/2/123.full).
- For more on the value of undergraduate course research experiences for broadening participation in research, see: Bangera G, Brownell SE (2014). Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive. CBE Life Sci Educ 13, 602–606 (www.lifescied.org/content/13/4/602.full).
- For more on assessment of classroom undergraduate research experiences, see: Corwin LA, Graham MJ, Dolan EL (2015). Modeling course-based undergraduate research experiences: an agenda for future research and evaluation. CBE Life Sci Educ 14, es1 (www.lifescied.org/content/14/1/es1.full).