Independent projects in large enrollment labs?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from John DeLong of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the first in a planned series of three. Thanks for taking the time John!

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A fresh take on canned labs

Introductory science classes often have high enrollment, and so their associated labs must accommodate high student throughput. Not surprisingly, all of the introductory science labs I have taken and taught in my academic career have used canned labs. Students conduct activities or experiments with known outcomes, and by going through the activity and conducting an analysis, students ‘discover’ something we want them to know. As an instructor for the 200-level Ecology and Evolution class at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln for the last five years, I have tried to make sure our canned labs work reliably and generate the expected outcomes. Although there are two partially inquiry-based labs, the lab is still mostly canned. Most of the labs work, and the course has followed this format for many years.

About a year ago, however, we had a reliable lab go bad. Given our schedule, we needed the students to complete their assignments and move on. But asking students to do this had a profound effect on me. I felt as though I were completely lying to the students about how science works. Science does not follow the mantra of try something, fail, do something else. It follows a try something, fail, trouble shoot, try again mantra (at least up to a point). I felt that in addition to failing to teach the expected content, we gave students a false picture of how to do science and made the whole exercise rather pointless.

Bee enter bonnet

At this point, I had the crushing realization that maybe I have been teaching labs all wrong. Lecture is where we teach and learn content. Lab should be where we teach and learn process. We were mixing the two and failing to provide students with an authentic view of the scientific process. I began talking this problem up to anyone who would listen and planning a totally independent-projects based alternative lab. I got support from everyone I talked with – students, colleagues, and importantly, my department chair – and so this semester I am rolling out an independent-projects based lab for the Ecology and Evolution class. No canned labs. No recipes. For 108 students. With some students working in pairs, I am guessing we will have about 75 student-led, inquiry-based projects going at once. I am actually slightly worried about pulling this off, but everyone around me is so positive, I am tempted to think it will work.

Since I am bound to learn some hard lessons about trying to support so many independent projects at one time for mostly sophomore students who have always been told what to do in lab, I thought I would summarize the experience in a three-part blog. This first entry is being written in the first week of lab, before I’ve learned any hard lessons. The second entry will be during our spring break, and I will post one more at the end of the semester. I will try to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and what I failed to anticipate.

What exactly are we doing?

The lab is broken into three sections: 1) sampling and statistics (3 weeks), 2) mini-projects (3 weeks), and 3) independent projects (8 weeks). Each activity will require the students to decide what to sample, what questions to ask, and how to do it. Even for learning how to do descriptive statistics, the students will go outside, wander around, pick a population of plants (it’s winter, so it’ll be stems, seeds, etc.) and figure out how to sample it. We have some stats we want them to learn how to run, but they will do it using the data they choose to collect. In the mini and independent projects, they will formulate a hypothesis and test it. The mini-project will be just that – mini and not too concerned with biological concepts. The independent project will focus on something biologically interesting but doable. The bar for ‘interesting’ is that they use some content from lecture to motivate their hypothesis. They have 8 weeks, so they have time to try something, fail, trouble shoot, and try again. They will present their projects to their sections and write a scientific paper.

Grading this thing

Grades are forefront in students’ minds, so we do need to grade in a way that doesn’t cause undue stress. I think getting this right is key to getting student buy-in for the new lab approach. In this lab, the grades will reflect student willingness to engage in the scientific process. A portion of the grade will come from achieving benchmarks. For example, when the TA says a student has proposed an interesting hypothesis, they have earned the ‘hypothesis’ points and, regardless of how the rest of the project goes, they won’t lose them. I hope this frees the students to focus on the process and not worry about their grades so much. Finally, students will not be expected to write a well-thought out scientific paper on their first attempt. Instead, they will revise their papers based on TA feedback, and the thoroughness of their revision will determine the grade on the paper.

The end result

Will this approach be better than what we did before? I think so. I plan to conduct some exit interviews to document student perceptions. If all goes well, at the end of this, students will come out the other side with an authentic scientific experience, a more positive view of science, and a good foundation for whatever comes next.

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