Research Experiences and Career Mentoring for Large Cohorts

Return to search results | New search

Title of Abstract: Research Experiences and Career Mentoring for Large Cohorts

Name of Author: Jennifer Stanford
Author Company or Institution: Drexel University
Author Title: Assistant Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Other (Please list):: Career Development; Capstone Course
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Adding to the literature on how people learn, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Curriculum Design, Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Capstone, Proposal Writing, Assessment, Career

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Laura E. Duwel, Drexel University Elizabeth A. Spudich, Thomas Jefferson University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Over the past four years, the Biology Department at Drexel University has worked to define student learning goals and develop assessments to evaluate our success in achieving these goals. Among these goals, we wanted our students to learn to: critically read and analyze their own work and the biology literature, communicate effectively, conduct science ethically, engage in the scientific process, and be prepared effectively for a career or future schooling. To achieve these goals, one approach we used was to significantly revise our capstone experience to provide practical career resources, and institute a mandatory year-long writing project requiring students to develop novel theoretical research proposals in teams with support from a faculty mentor. Many sources, including the original Vision and Change report, have suggested that research experiences should be integrated into undergraduate biology curricula. This can be difficult to achieve due to resource limitations. We hoped that incorporating a mandatory theoretical research project into our curriculum would allow us to educate students in important elements of the scientific process such as: integrating evidence from the literature, posing original research questions, developing rational aims, devising viable experiments and writing scientifically. As well, we hoped that this approach would allow students to: propose their own creative ideas, engage in the scientific process, work as part of a team, and develop a relationship with a faculty mentor. We believed this approach would allow us to better address core competencies one and five from the original Vision and Change Report, by allowing students to engage in the thought process of developing a viable research proposal, and requiring them to communicate about this research in a variety of ways throughout the year.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The proposal writing project is an integral part of our senior capstone course series, which includes three, sequential, 10-week courses. In self-selected groups of five, students devise novel research questions supported by the literature and design experimental aims to address these questions, with support from a faculty mentor. Faculty mentors meet regularly with students to support proposal development. The project is split into three 10-week periods to fit with the structure of the capstone course series. In the first course, students: discover areas of interest, and develop a well-supported research question after being matched with a mentor. In the second course, students: expand on the background to support their proposal and design aims to logically address their research question. Finally, in the third course, students: design experiments to support their aims, and finalize proposal writing.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We assessed student experiences over a three year period, using an anonymous pretest/posttest self-assessment design, using primarily five-point Likert items. Questions were intended to evaluate comfort with: aspects of proposal writing, program learning goals, and career preparedness. We also assessed the faculty experience through a one-time, anonymous survey, delivered to all project mentors. The multiple choice survey focused on the mentors’ perceptions of: the benefits of the approach, their experiences with the project, the number of student interactions they had as a result of the project, and student achievement of project learning goals.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We have mentored over 500 students in proposal writing since this project began in 2008-9, with 23 distinct faculty serving as mentors. Gains have been made in all areas studied, but most markedly in students’ comfort with devising viable experiments and posing original research questions. This project also leads to more connections being made between departmental students and faculty. Our assessments led to two surprising findings about student career development: 1) few students feel that multiple departmental faculty know them well at the start of the senior year, and 2) few students have a backup plan to their primary career goal. While the proposal writing project increases the number of student-faculty interactions, we wanted to develop additional career mentoring opportunities. Individual career mentoring is difficult to achieve with over 750 students enrolled as Biology majors at Drexel. Therefore, we devised a required sophomore-level career mentoring course. In this course, students develop plans to prepare for at least two career goals, assess their plans and construct materials to support future job or school applications (i.e. cover letters, personal statements), and receive personalized feedback on submitted materials from their instructors. Based on anonymous pretest/posttest assessments, while most students start without a clear backup plan, all students end the course with at least one backup option established. We are currently assessing additional outcomes. This approach is now being instituted at a broader level within the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel. Each department will require their own version of this course for students at the sophomore or junior level. These courses are part of a college level discussion on how to provide effective mentoring. We believe that this is a streamlined approach to provide individual career mentoring to large student cohorts, which will better prepare students to achieve their career goals.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: We encountered two significant challenges as we devised the proposal writing project: 1) Issues with group dynamics. While this is not an unexpected challenge, we have attempted to manage it in two ways. First, group size is important, with groups of five working best for our cohorts. Smaller groups had workload issues, while larger groups had more disputes. Second, effective group selection is critical for improving group dynamics. Currently, we have students identify: topic areas of interest, common times for group work, and their group work style. Students then form groups based on their compatibility with these issues. This has helped to address some of the common problems with group dynamics. We also ask students and mentors to assess group functioning once per term, allowing instructors to identify and address any issues. 2) Student focus on numeric grades. Despite efforts to devise a culture encouraging students to focus on product generation instead of on grades; providing point values on graded assignments led to a fixation on numeric grades. Ultimately, we embraced a rating system in which all submissions addressing indicated requirements receive a grade in the A range, but are ranked in categories (Excellent, Very Good or Good) to allow students to understand how their proposal compares with others. This approach has completely eliminated counterproductive discussions focused on points, changing the focus towards improving proposal development. Importantly, this approach, in which most students earn grades in the A range, does not diminish student effort. Instead, their effort often significantly surpasses our expectations.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: A manuscript on the proposal writing project is under revision by Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching. We are currently writing a manuscript on the career development course.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Biology Department faculty at Drexel University for mentoring senior project groups; departmental staff for assisting our efforts; Drs. Gurney, Marenda, and Russell for teaching the career development course with us; the Steinbright Career Development Center for helping to develop and teach sessions; Ms. Peggy Dominy for her help as science librarian; Dr. Donna Murasko for encouraging our pursuit of these approaches; Dr. Jeff Twiss for his support; and especially the participating students.