Learning Science by Writing: Interdisciplinary Approaches

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Title of Abstract: Learning Science by Writing: Interdisciplinary Approaches

Name of Author: christine Hohmann
Author Company or Institution: Morgan State University
Author Title: Associate Professor of Biology
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Interdisciplinary scientific writing
Course Levels: Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: Seminar style course; STEM and Social Behavioral Sciences; research paper analysis; research thesis;

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Ernest Steele, Morgan State University Stella Hargett, Morgan State University Julie Reynolds, Duke University Jason Dowd, Duke University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: At Morgan State University (MSU), we have implemented an interdisciplinary, seminar-style, two-course writing curriculum, to engage students as active participants in the generation of research literature based knowledge and to enhance literacy in biomedical & bioenvironmental concepts, across STEM and Social/Behavioral Sciences disciplines. Our intended outcomes are to enable students to communicate across disciplinary borders and to enhance their writing skills in preparation for successful entry into graduate school and the biomedical workforce. This work is conducted within the larger context of a multi-institutional, NSF funded study aimed at understanding the role of writing in promoting learning and engagement for diverse undergraduate thesis writers. Specifically, this study, headed by J. Reynolds at Duke University, focuses on understanding whether writing an undergraduate thesis improves critical thinking and writing skills through impacting metacognition, motivation, and/or beliefs, and whether these effects differ as a function of student characteristics and departmental context.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The two-course sequence at MSU utilizes a student centered approach in which the instructor serves primarily as moderator, with students engaged in focused discussions of their respective projects. Occasional mini-lectures are given by a student or the instructor, to explain discipline-specific concepts or terminology across the diverse group of students. BIOL 450 (Critical Analysis of the Research Literature, open to all juniors/seniors) trains students to develop a deep understanding of a particular research area of their choice, via the critical analysis of primary research papers and presentations to their peers. This course has, on average, 10 to 14 participants. Through interactions with projects and presentations, grounded in other science disciplines, students acquire an appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of research and the concepts and research cultures that need to come together for successful problem solving in contemporary biomedical and bioenvironmental research. The capstone project is a research review paper. BIOL 451 (Senior Research Thesis) builds on concepts learned in BIOL 450. Students are required to develop evidence based hypotheses or research questions and experimental designs as well as produce and interpret data that they have generated in a real (mentored) research environment. Annual participants number between 7 and 10 for this course which culminates in the production of a thesis paper, modeled on a primary research publication. Student assessments, in both courses, are based on a variety of weekly written and/or oral presentations and assignments that are scored using rubrics. Elements of the capstone projects are developed via group discussions and with instructor feedback. Students receive a letter grade only at the end of each semester, after having multiple opportunities to revise their capstone paper.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: On an institutional (MSU) level, we have used survey instruments and focus groups for several years, to evaluate the impact of the course sequence on students’ perceptions of self-efficacy in analyzing the scientific literature, writing scientific abstracts and papers and communicating with colleagues in other disciplines. However, it should be noted that these evaluations were conducted on cohorts of students participating in the NIGMS funded MBRS RISE Program at MSU and cannot easily be disaggregated from the effects of other MBRS RISE sponsored activities. Within the context of the multi-institutional study, pre-and post-class survey responses from all participants, at four collaborating institutions (MSU, Duke, UNC, and UMN), have been collected at Duke University, for the 2012/2013 academic year and this data set is currently being analyzed with respect to the above stated project goals.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Institutionally (MSU), evaluations have pointed at substantial impact of the writing curriculum on students’ readiness for graduate applications and successful admissions. In line with prior institutional assessments, data from the multi-institutional pre-and post-surveys, this year, demonstrate increased self-efficacy at the end of BIOL 451, across 11 of 15 categories assessed. Additional analyses correlating writing skills, critical thinking skills with metacognition, motivation, and/or student beliefs are currently underway. The official adoption in 2012, of BIOL 450/451 into the Biology Department curriculum, as elective courses open to students across the STEM and Social/Behavioral sciences, now makes important elements of research training available to all interested science students at MSU. This has come at a time when institutional leadership has started to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations at our institution. On the Departmental and Institutional level, the BIOL 450/451 course sequence, informed by years of teaching comparable skills and concepts to students in the MBRS RISE Program at MSU, has helped to open up the discussion of major curriculum change. Aided by funding from NIGMS, we are currently engaged in the redesign of foundation and gatekeeper courses for our Biology majors, in accordance with the recommendations of the 2011 Vision & Change (V&C) document. We have found an increasing willingness by faculty in the School of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences (SCMNS) and particularly in the Department of Biology to learn about the pedagogical approaches outlined in V&C and begin to implement them in their courses.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: A current barrier to a more large-scale enrollment in the BIOL 450/451course sequence is that heavily scripted curricula in various science disciplines leave little room for students to take additional electives. This slows down our ability to generate statistically meaningful data on the specific impact the courses have on students’ intellectual development and discipline knowledge. However, MSU is currently engaged in efforts to redevelop its curriculum, particularly in the SCMNS, to allow for more course choices for incoming generations of students.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Dissemination, to date, has been limited to progress reports to funding agencies. This abstract is our first presentation of the concepts, and so far limited data, regarding the implementation of this course sequence. As data generation and analysis continue in the next years, we intend to prepare publications in conjunction with the multi-institutional team but possibly also based on specific significant features related to our specific course sequence.

Acknowledgements: R25GM058904 (MBRS RISE at MSU) & NSF DUE-1225612 (TUES II: Collaborative Research: Understanding the Role of Writing in Promoting Learning and Engagement for Diverse Undergraduate Thesis Writers).