Research-based introductory biology laboratory courses

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Title of Abstract: Research-based introductory biology laboratory courses

Name of Author: Stephanie Gardner
Author Company or Institution: Purdue University
Author Title: Continuing Lecturer
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: course-based undergraduate research critical thinking authentic research nature of science inquiry

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Dennis J. Minchella, Purdue University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The overarching goal of our NSF-funded project initiated in 2009 is to introduce freshmen biology majors into the culture of scientific discovery by engaging them in authentic research projects as part of their introductory biology curriculum. With this engagement we hope to increase student persistence in science by fueling their interest in critical thinking and inquiry. The desired outcomes of our project were that students will demonstrate an understanding of the nature of science, be able to critically evaluate information and design experiments to test hypotheses, analyze and interpret their results to make inferences, and develop and improve their scientific communication skills.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: To achieve our goals our first step was to develop and implement 2 research-based labs for introductory biology students at Purdue University. In our research-based lab classes students participate in several activities and in-class assessments that would engage them in critical thinking. These included several activities involving communication: 1) developing a research plan and methods, 2) analyzing and interpreting their results, 3) organizing their results for communication in written and oral formats and 4) reflecting on the next steps in their projects and/or proposing ways to improve their experiments.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: The effectiveness of these one-semester courses was measured by a combination of student attitudes, objective assessments of critical thinking, and longitudinal tracking of their academic performance and career choices. We have seen significant gains in student attitudes at the end of the semester using a Likert scale survey regarding their interest in science, perceived connection between real life and science, view that lab course was similar to real scientific lab practices, perceived learning of biology content through, and belief that they can understand and do scientific research. Further, the ratings were significantly higher than students in the traditional lab class (p<0.05, one-tailed unpaired t test). We also implemented the Critical thinking Assessment Test (CAT) to evaluate the effectiveness of our research-based introductory biology laboratory courses in developing critical thinking skills. We administered the CAT to a total of 60 first-year biology students in a pre/post semester format. We observed significant gains (p<0.05, paired t test) in the CAT scores at the end of the semester compared to the beginning of the semester in all four semesters that we used the test. We have demonstrated that our research-based courses not only improve student critical thinking skills, but also stimulate their interest in science. We have begun to evaluate the long-term impact that taking part in these classes has on persistence in Biology and STEM majors, performance in science classes, and further research experiences and career choices. Initial findings indicate that students who take our classes continue to value the experience and have a richer insight into science process skills compared to students who were enrolled in the traditional lab classes.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Our project has had impact both in our department and across the country. Our successes have secured the support of the chair of the Department of Biological Sciences who is committed to increasing access to these types of classes for our students. Faculty have recognized the value of this these types of classes for the students as well as their own research programs. In the spring of 2012, two sections of the sophomore Genetics lab class were adapted to the research-based lab style. In addition, a new introductory research-based class is currently in development which will open up more opportunities for Biology majors. We are also working with adopters of the HHMI SEA Phage Hunters on our campus to open seats in the classes for Biology majors. Finally, we have provided guidance and materials for the implementation of similar classes at other institutions, including a Neurobiology class at Ursinus College.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: One of the biggest, unexpected challenges we encountered as student apprehension to ask their own questions and formulate testable hypotheses to pursue. They feel that they are unqualified to be charged with such a task after knowing so little background. We have encouraged them with the fact that if everyone waited until they thought that they knew everything they needed to know before doing an experiment, then no one would be doing experiments! Inspirational quotes from prominent scientists have also been helpful. The challenge ahead is to continue to fine tune and scale up these courses in order to provide more opportunities for beginning science students. One of the major barriers to the expansion of this successful laboratory model is finding interested instructors to teach these classes. We have been successful in convincing a small number of faculty members to design classes. More importantly, we have tapped into the abundant resource of motivated graduate and undergraduate students. We have had been fortunate to have graduate students to aid in course design and teaching and undergraduates to help students solidify skills and knowledge through Peer Led Team Learning sessions with the students in the classes. Not only has this collaborative approach allowed us to slowly grow the program, but all of the students involved have benefited immensely from it.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Our dissemination activities have been focused on publishing data from our classes both from an educational and scientific perspective. To date our work has resulted in two education publications (Gardner et al., 2011; Gasper and Gardner, 2013), one scientific research article with 30 undergraduate student authors (Gasper et al., 2012a) and one of the courses received national recognition as one of the AAAS/Science Prize winners for Inquiry-Based Instruction (Gasper et al., 2012). We hope to interface with the REIL and CUREnet NSF RCN-UBE projects to help with support of this model of undergraduate research education and to share the resources that we have developed.

Acknowledgements: This work was funded by NSF TUES grant # 0941921 and with help from the HHMI education grant, Deviating from the Standard: Injecting Statistics into Life Sciences Education.