Inquiry-Based Lab Exercises in Undergraduate Biology Courses

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Title of Abstract: Inquiry-Based Lab Exercises in Undergraduate Biology Courses

Name of Author: Nanette Diffoot
Author Company or Institution: University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum
Approaches: Inquiry-based exercises in course laboratory
Keywords: Inquiry-based Teaching-laboratories curriculum Research-skills Undergraduates

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Vivian Navas, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Dimuth Siritunga, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Rafael Montalvo, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Franklin Carrero-Martinez, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Nico Franz, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Carlos Acevedo, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Ana Velez, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Department of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus (UPR-M), with over 1300 undergraduates (99% underrepresented minority) and 40 faculty members, has successfully integrated inquiry-based laboratory exercises into undergraduate biology courses pipelined across the curriculum. Eleven lab exercises (1-2 per course) were implemented in the laboratories of the General Biology, Microbiology, Genetics, Botany, Immunology, Cell Biology, Microbial Ecology, Entomology and the Plant Physiology courses, impacting approximately 1,300 students per year. These inquiry based exercises were tailored to develop laboratory and research skills, and competence in research tools and techniques. Furthermore, an information literacy module was merged with a General Biology laboratory exercise. This initiative responded to the need of exploring nontraditional approaches to effectively develop research skills since institutional limitations do not allow all students to participate in traditional research apprenticeship.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The methodology followed throughout the four years of the project included the design of the inquiry-based lab exercises, training of the teaching assistants, lab coordinators and technicians, purchase of the appropriate equipment and materials and assessment. The lab exercises were first pilot tested with a small student population, assessed and modified accordingly. These exercises were then implemented to the entire course population and again assessed and adjusted. Six of the inquiry-based lab modules were also offered as one-day workshops to undergraduate students, k-12 teachers and faculty from nearby institutions. When the inquiry-based lab exercises met objectives, they were permanently integrated into the laboratory of the given course. The lab coordinators and technicians, empowered by the training, continued with teaching assistant training and module supervision.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Assessment tools used throughout the project included an assessment cycle form for the faculty researcher that designed the exercise, indicating the objectives, the assessment outcomes and the actions taken. The undergraduate students completed pre- and post-test to assess knowledge and research confidence gained through the lab exercises. Feedback was also collected from teaching assistants, lab coordinators and technicians.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The assessment collected supports the effectiveness of our initiative. Students learned research techniques and developed research skills, as well as information literacy competency through the inquiry-based teaching labs. In some cases the lab exercise allowed for students to collaborate with ongoing department research applicable to Puerto Rico. Furthermore, the lab experiences increased their confidence in doing research and motivated many to seek other research opportunities. Teaching assistants reported students gaining research knowledge and research skills through the lab modules and agreed that the course and laboratory were enriched with these lab exercises. They themselves reported learning through the modules. Laboratory coordinators with no previous experience in the specific techniques were also required to learn in order to train the teaching assistants. They also report having been encouraged by this experience to review and modify other lab exercises. A senior survey regarding curriculum research experiences was collected four years into the project. Two hundred sixty seven seniors (48%) answered the questionnaire. Over 80% of the respondents had taken at least 3 of the inquiry-based lab modules. Forty one percent reported having no independent research experience and thus relied entirely on the courses for developing research knowledge. This survey also included a list of the research techniques used in the inquiry-based lab modules for seniors to identify

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Shifting from traditional cookbook-like laboratory exercises of predictable outcomes, to inquiry-based exercises, has required intense coordination and assessment as well as the training of the personnel associated with the teaching infrastructure. This initiative required time commitment of the department director, an assessment coordinator, six faculty members, training of graduate teaching assistants, laboratory technicians and lab coordinators. Major challenges, encountered throughout the project included research faculties’ lack of experience in conducting assessment and the initial resistance to change attitude from lab technicians and coordinators, likely in response to the uncertainties of the module’s scientific content. Coordinators were empowered to conduct teaching assistant training and module supervision every semester. Because of the large undergraduate and teaching assistant population involved, a large staff was necessary for the coordination, distribution and collection of assessment tools, as well as to coordinate ordering and receiving supplies. The assessment carried out throughout the four years of the project was essential to obtaining effective lab exercises. Our assessment plan of initially conducting pilot studies (implementing the new inquiry-based lab module in only one lab section before moving to a larger scale) should be applied to any future curriculum modifications since it facilitated foreseeing and solving problems encountered.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Project outcomes have been presented locally as well as in national scientific meetings and some are being summarized for publication. Siritunga and colleagues (Siritunga et al., 2012) recently published the botany inquiry-based lab module. The information literacy module has been adapted for use in other departments on- and off- campus.

Acknowledgements: The project was funded by HHMI, Undergraduate Science Program. We thank laboratory coordinators, technicians and graduate teaching assistants for their cooperation, feedback and assistance in the implementation of the lab exercises. We also thank Maria Mendez and Idaris de Jesus for their assistance, beyond what was required, with data collecting-analysis and purchasing, respectively.