Mimicking the Research Experience: An Experiment in Improving Undergraduate Biology Labs

Earlier this year I accepted a postdoctoral position at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university (HBCU) in central Durham.  I spend 75% of my time performing research in the lab of Dr. Jodie Fleming, and 25% of my time teaching introductory biology labs.  Through the Center for Science, Math and Technology Education, NCCU received a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to improve their biology curriculum.  A few NCCU faculty in the Biology Department, along with a few other faculty from other science disciplines, have set out to infuse their courses with an authentic research perspective.

The main problem faced by many colleges is that biology students chiefly memorize the course content, and no substantial, long-term learning is occurring.  On top of that, NCCU’s student population is similar to that in other HBCUs in that many arrive to college less prepared than their peers at other state institutions.  Such is reflected in lower-than-average SAT scores and GPAs.  The benefit of this system is can provide higher education to a group that may not have had the opportunity otherwise.  On the other hand, the faculty have a population of students with diverse learning skills and knowledge bases.  It is often necessary to address basic math and grammar while still teaching college-level biology.  Many students who start as biology majors never complete their degree in that field, if at all.

To increase retention and graduation of students in biology (or other STEM disciplines), we are changing the introductory biology lab curriculum in a few sections.  This is our experiment in improving teaching through the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL).  The changes are based on course-based undergraduate research experiences (CURE), where students are exposed to an inquiry-based, problem-based, scientific research perspective early in their time at a university.

What does this entail?  Firstly, the course is divided into two modules.  The first module deals with learning skills of the trade such as measuring volumes in graduated cylinders and micropipets, microscopy, and graphing.  The second module asks students to apply these new skills to a series of experiments on the effects of various compounds on yeast fermentation.  Secondly, each class has a larger support system with an instructor, a postdoctoral fellow, a graduate teaching assistant (TA), and an undergraduate TA.  Students’ questions are answered more quickly and they have the option of asking questions to someone with whom they are comfortable.

We have just finished our first semester of teaching research-infused sections of Bio 1 and Bio 2, and so far the results have been mixed.  Repeatedly using the same techniques did help students improve their skills at microscopy, measurement, and graphing over time.  However, the students did not connect with the material as much as we had hoped.  Even though the students were performing different experiments in the second module of the class (testing different sugars, artificial sweeteners, etc. in yeast fermentation), they used the same techniques and would often say they were “doing the same experiment again.”

Over the past few weeks, we have worked on improving our CURE model.  Our primary change is that every class will be structured around the scientific method.  The scientific method is the backbone to good, purposeful research and the same should be true for the students.  This process was honestly the most difficult part to changing the curriculum.  We took the past labs, some of which were still the traditional cookbook-style lab exercise, and gave each lab a question or problem to address.  Students then will identify independent and dependent variables, posit a hypothesis, carry out the experiment, write up their results, draw conclusions, and propose future experiments.  In the second module, we will guide the students through proposing future experiments and carrying them out in subsequent weeks.  In that way, students will have a little more freedom to explore how science works in the real world.

Each of our labs in the first module will develop key skills that the students will need in the second module (as well as future biology courses).  The skills used will build throughout the first half of the semester, as shown in this diagram:  Research-Infused Biology Lab.

Online pre-lab quizzes will ask the students to think about the scientific method (problem, hypothesis, variables, etc.) before arriving to the classroom.  In addition, the lab notebook will become the central repository for all of their notes, experiments, conclusions, etc.  Lastly, we will spend a little more time each class framing the problem/question of the experiments at hand.  Students should be able to describe why they are doing an experiment, not just the tasks they are performing.

Overall, we want to provide our students with a model for how science works in real life.  It is rare that you walk into a research lab knowing exactly the results you will get.  In fact, that practice may lead to problems of falsifying data if researchers don’t consider alternative hypotheses or are pressured to produce certain results.  Over the next few years, we are going to measure if giving students these experiences as part of the biology curriculum has a positive impact on their grades, in-class performance, retention within a STEM field, and graduation.

What are your thoughts on this model?  Any tips from those who have tried it in the past?

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