Integrating Research into the Undergraduate Curriculum

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Title of Abstract: Integrating Research into the Undergraduate Curriculum

Name of Author: Sarah Ades
Author Company or Institution: Penn State University
Author Title: Associate Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, General Biology, Genetics, Microbiology, Virology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: inquiry-based student-centered research laboratory course seminar

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: There is a fundamental disconnect between the traditional approach to science education and the way science functions as a discipline. Science education has focused on lecture courses emphasizing facts, and laboratory courses in which students practice techniques. The scientific method of asking interesting questions, formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, and analyzing data, is difficult to convey in this format. Because science pervades nearly every aspect of modern society, it is imperative that we educate students in the theory and techniques of science and in the practice of primary research and its applications. To this end, we developed a two course progression to couple classroom learning with primary research and to integrate students into the research community starting in their freshman year. The first course is an introductory laboratory course that uses open-ended inquiry-based labs and student-centered active learning techniques that focus on the Core Concepts for Biological Literacy and the Scientific Method. The second course combines independent research in faculty laboratories with a student-driven seminar. The overall framework of these courses is expandable and readily adaptable to other areas of science. The overarching goal of these courses is to give the students a strong foundation in scientific inquiry to guide them in their education at the university and to provide them with the skills to become life-long educated consumers of science. Throughout the courses, units are chosen that relate life sciences to the students’ lives, address core concepts, and stimulate curiosity about the biological world.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Introductory Lab Course: The primary goal of this course is to initiate students in the practice of science. It is taken by students in their second semester and is their first biological laboratory course. The emphasis is on understanding science as a discipline, while learning concepts of microbiology, lab safety, notebook skills, and experimental techniques. The course is divided into modules focusing on core concepts, such as evolution, information exchange, and microbial systems. Successive modules increase in complexity and build on concepts learned earlier in the course. For each module, peer groups of students discuss the topic and define a question of interest answerable through experimentation with guidance from the instructors. Peer groups develop hypotheses, design the experiments, and analyze their results. At the end of a module, students present their work in written or oral format. The presentations teach communication skills, allow students to learn from others, and enable the type of critical discussion of data and conclusions common in scientific communities. Communities of Practice: Sections of this course are organized around research questions that are shared among laboratories of several faculty members, such as antibiotic development or cellular differentiation. Students perform primary research in one of the laboratories and meet weekly in a seminar to investigate and discuss critical issues surrounding the research and the broader impacts of science on society. Students direct the seminar and choose topics for investigation as a group. An explicit goal of this format is to educate students on how to identify interesting and important scientific questions. Students learn how to gather information outside a classroom and how to synthesize and present material to their peers. Students participate in the course on an ongoing basis culminating with the senior thesis. In this manner, students develop a peer group in the section and laboratory.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: A formal assessment plan to evaluate the outcomes of this two course sequence is currently being developed in conjunction with education experts at the Schreyer Center for Teaching and Learning at Penn State. Assessments will address retention of skills taught in the introductory lab course, understanding of the scientific method, and effects of involvement in these courses on student achievement and retention in the major. The laboratory course was first offered in 2013. Student ratings of teaching effectiveness for both semesters were very high and many students noted that the inquiry-based format enhanced their learning experience. The Communities of Practice course has been taught since 2009. Students who participated in the class have commented on how much the class helped in being prepared for graduate and medical schools.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Although we have not yet assessed the courses with a formal research study, we have noted positive impacts of the courses. The inquiry-based introductory lab course is now recommended for all students entering the three majors hosted by our department. The Communities of Practice course is designed in a modular format that facilitates expansion. A course guide was developed so that sections of the course can be easily established by faculty groups who share research goals, whether in the same department or from different academic units.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Among the major challenges has been in finding the time to develop new courses and to gain a better understanding of teaching methods. Sabbatical time was instrumental. In addition, resources such as a course development workshop through the Schreyer Center for Teaching and Learning, seminars on teaching methods sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Science Education (CESE) of the Eberly College of Science at Penn State, and participation in international conferences on science education (ASMCUE) were critical for obtaining the background about teaching methods and theory to better design the courses. Fellowship support from the CESE also provided necessary resources to implement the course.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The activities have been presented as a seminar for the CESE that was open to all faculty on campus. A course guide to the Communities of Practice course will be available for faculty interested in starting sections of the course. Plans are to write a description of the courses for the PULSE toolkit. Once more formal assessment has been done, the work will be presented at conferences and via publications.

Acknowledgements: These courses were developed and implemented in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Keiler in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at Penn State. This work was supported in part by a Tombros fellowship from the Center for Excellence in Science Education of the Eberly College of Science at Penn State.