Using Authentic Research In Uncontrolled Environments

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Title of Abstract: Using Authentic Research In Uncontrolled Environments

Name of Author: Douglas Causey
Author Company or Institution: University of Alaska Anchorage
Author Title: Professor of Biological Sciences
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Ecology and Environmental Biology
Course Levels: Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: A mixture of the above, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.)
Keywords: Socioscientific reasoning, authentic research, inquiry learning, ecology, assessment

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Michael P. Mueller, University of Alaska Lauren A. Caruso, University of Alaska

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: When is authentic research in undergraduate biology education too authentic? We may have come close to finding an answer to this question in an experimental course, Exploration Ecology, offered in Fall 2012 at the University of Alaska Anchorage. This was designed as an advanced upper-division lecture and laboratory experience using inquiry-driven learning and authentic research as a means for students to apply socioscientific reasoning skills in ecological contexts. These skills utilize authentic scientific problems that are embedded in social and ethical contexts. They are focused specifically on empowering students to consider how science-based issues and the decisions made concerning them reflect ethical principles applied to their own lives, as well as the physical and social world around them.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Our immediate goals were to enable students to design and undertake research using these skills, and within the context of competing ethics of development, protection, and management prevalent here. We focused on the study and collection of baseline ecological data in nearby remote landscapes where few data exist, under the real constraints of time, resources, and logistics. The constraints were identified through their own consultations with research scientists at state and federal agencies, other professionals, local people, and industry. These and others constituted the community of practice that served as a resource, as an audience, and in a few cases, as participants in student-initiated research. Our pedagogical goals were focused on better understanding the complexity of implementing authentic research in realistic field-based settings, developing a flexible and responsive (‘organic’) instructional design, and in creating relevant assessments of student progress. In practice, students interviewed members of the community of practice to determine which were their highest priorities for research or knowledge discovery within our context. Using these as potential research foci, students self-assembled into interest groups (e.g., plant communities, stream ecology, moose foraging behavior) and worked to design scientific research projects constrained by the factors listed above. We refined the content and delivery of lectures and laboratories throughout the course to match the progress and the maturation of student project activities. This ‘Just In Time’ educational approach provided an immediate relevancy otherwise difficult to achieve in a standard predetermined syllabus.

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 based our assessment of student success by typical self-assessment instruments and surveys, narratives by students and participants, as well as preparation of manuscripts for publication.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: In all, 15 students participated in four distinct projects ranging from an ecological study of juvenile salmonids to foraging behavior in moose. All of these ecological projects were field-based in semi-remote environmental settings, and in every case represented original research never conducted before this class. Students presented the results of their one-semester projects in a public meeting attended by agency scientists, industry representatives (e.g., mining, fisheries), top administrators of the university (Deans, Chancellor), and the general public. Their research results were featured in public media (newspaper, TV), State and Federal agency publications, and industry professional associations. Two of the students received full support fellowships on the basis of their published research, and several are working in paid internships with agencies to continue their particular projects. All of these showed that the approach we describe here succeeded as an effective paradigm for integrative biological science education at advanced levels.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: We did not anticipate how difficult it would be to implement an experimental course of this type. We had planned for the educational challenges and in fact looked forward to them; this is what we do best. But every other aspect of this course was new as well and, consequently, we and the students were confronted with academic and administrative disconnect almost daily that reflected the complexities faced by all professional scientists and researchers. They ranged from a somewhat trivial concern that the credit hours assigned to this course were probably insufficient for the work performed by the students to a substantial set of potential liability issues that nearly cancelled the course mid-semester. Student research results were vigorously debated: each agency, industry group, and stakeholders use and interpret data in ways that reflect their own political realities, not necessarily in synchrony with unfettered academic freedom. Ultimately, all of these challenges were resolved. Students were directly involved in all of these issues and learned how critical scientific research can be in authentic contexts.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The methodology, curriculum, and outcomes have been published widely within the state of Alaska by news media and traditional means. As a consequence of the excellence in student achievement in this single course, our department is adopting the approach used here as a model for similar upper division courses. Minus, we hope, the controversies.

Acknowledgements: We would like to acknowledge assistance and support by the US Forest Service -- Chugach National Forest, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, US Geological Survey -- Alaska Science Center, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, the Aleut Native Corporation, and the Eyak Native Corporation. We especially thank Cynthia Annett, Sarah Boario, Thomas Case, Tim Charnon, Mark Chilcote, Greg Hayward, Jessica Ilse, Joshua Leffler, Terri Marceron, David Tessler for professional assistance in the classroom, laboratory, and field settings.