A Good Idea

Here’s an interesting idea, let’s design what we teach around the question, “What do Scientists Do?

I was originally exposed to this simple, but amazingly “outside-the-box” idea, by Ellen Aho, a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. I met Ellen at the ASMCUE 2008 conference where she presented, “The student-led conference style symposia as a technique for developing oral presentation skills in a moderately sized Microbiology course.” Ellen posed the question, “What do scientists do?” and then made the point that our teaching activities should be related to these activities. An interesting idea… The program that she teaches in at Concordia College is designed with this paradigm in mind (i.e., this won’t be the first time students have seen it). In addition to the in-class conference idea, other classes in her program have writing assignments, peer review, posters, etc. etc.

In keeping with my last post, of take what works and put it to work, Ellen’s idea had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time as a possibility for new content for MICB405. As part of this course, students carry out a self-directed research project (in groups of 4 students). The MICB405 group research project already contains a proposal submission, a final report, and a presentation of results at an in-class poster session. By treating these groups of students like graduate students embarking on their own research projects, and then preparing to attend their first conference with results, we hope to give students an authentic research experience. Thus far, the research component of MICB405 has worked well, but we thought that we could improve it by expanding on this idea of “what do scientists really do…”

Early in the semester, in collaboration with my co-instructor M. Murphy, we talked about ways into which we could inject new energy into the research project component of MICB405. Our real goal was to raise the overall quality of research projects by increasing student engagement and providing more opportunities for feedback (both peer and instructor).

dsc00022For the 2008 offering of MICB405, we added several new in-class activities to this component of the course. 6 lectures in total were dedicated to the group research project. Students were asked to: 1) submit a proposal, 2) carry out a peer review of submitted proposals**, 3) attend a feedback session on their proposal with the instructor, 4) submit a progress report**, 5) participate in an in-class discussion of critical evaluation of research results from their progress reports**, 6) prepare a poster for two-day in-class conference, 7) peer evaluate posters presented in-class and 8 ) prepare a final report. Peer evaluation and self-evaluation of individuals from student groups was also carried out.

**2,4,5 are new activities for 2008, and the in-class time dedicated to this project was increased from 4hr (in 2007) to 9hrs (in 2008). Highlights of these new lecture time included in-class peer review activities as well as lecture content explaining the peer review process in science. Michael talked about his experiences participating in CIHR review panels, and students responded very well to this new content.

More formally, here are the new learning objectives that Murphy and I introduced alongside these new research project based activities for the 2008 offering of MICB405:

Section 5: Research methods and critical assessment.
38.    You will be able to define a biological hypothesis that can be tested by bioinformatics methods.
39.    You will be able to critically evaluate a bioinformatics tool based on the assessment features available.
40.    You will be able to critically assess the degree to which the bioinformatics method supports a biological hypothesis
41.    You will be able to describe the methods, results and conclusions of a bioinformatics research project in a written report and as a poster presentation.

Anecdotally, these new activities achieved our goal of raising the overall quality of research carried out by students. During the poster session, I noticed that the average depth of research achieved by each group was higher as compared to last year, especially at the bottom end. I think that increased opportunities for feedback and more in-class dedicated time were responsible for this shift. I did carry out an in-class survey with respect to the research project components, so next up is analysis of those evaluations.

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