My friend Buddy used to say that “if you ask my dad what time it is, he’ll tell you how to build a clock”. For some people the experience of storytelling involves relatively meaningless details and “fluff”, which drives those of us who just want the facts crazy. No nonsense means more productivity. That same philosophy is important when it comes to designing and conducting a research project. Our fourth guiding principle is “Keep it simple, keep it short“. We want our students to design, conduct, analyze, and report results from a research project in one or two semesters. No chasing bunnies allowed!
Ideally, our students would join us in research projects in their sophomore year and we would work together for three years delving deeper and deeper into solving a research problem. However, in practicality it very rarely works that way. A huge chunk of our students are athletes or work 20+ hours weekly in addition to their courses. Many go home for the summer to work, go on mission trips, etc. So it is a rare student who has the opportunity and motivation to participate in uninterrupted research for three years. For this reason, we find that our typical research student is a senior taking the capstone course. Faculty and students must work creatively to find projects that are manageable in a finite amount of available time and require little learning curve or prolonged experiments. For this reason, the projects often center on use of skills learned in courses already taken to address research problems with which students are somewhat familiar. It is a blending of student interests with instructor guidance and insight to create a project that is simple and short. We believe more is gained by short-term projects of student design than from short-term involvement of students in projects of faculty design. After all, we are trying to train the next generation of leaders and professionals rather than the next generation of workers and technicians! We have a choice to be average or exceptional, and we choose to make our students exceptional!
Our third guiding principle for BIMS research projects is “Keep it Meaningful“. There are plenty of ways to approach involving students in the enterprise of research. One approach is to do quasi-research, projects that are original to the student but for which the outcome is known. Repeating the work of others as a way to teach students the mechanics of designing, conducting, analyzing, and reporting a research study is a standard process used in teaching. I’d bet everyone reading this has been in a lab at one time or another where the goal was to do an “experiment”, record the results and analyze them against the known outcome for that work. That is a legitimate means for teaching skills, but we don’t believe that is an exposure to research. An exercise of skills rather than an experiment to learn new knowledge. There are plenty of courses at our school and others that take this approach. We choose not to make this the sum total of their learning experience.
A second common approach to exposing students to research is to engage them as individual workers with their own modest component of an on-going project. Dr. Jones is working on characterizing an enzyme’s sensitivity to chemical and environmental changes, and Student Johnny is given the task of testing divalent cations in the process. Unlike the first approach above, this is truly research that reveals new knowledge. However, it is science as an “assembly line” process. Researchers in this type of compartmentalized research serve as workers doing their portion of a project with little knowledge of anything beyond their small part. In reality, BIG science is done that way; each scientist and lab pitches in their findings to give a more complete portrait of the problem and its answers. As with the exercise approach above, we do involve our students in projects like this in some courses (or in portions of courses). However, we also want our students to see more than the toenail of the elephant.
We choose instead to involve our students, at some point in their BIMS experience, in designing, conducting, analyzing, and reporting on a project of their own creation. Not an exercise repeating work previously done. Not as a cog in a machine. A compartmentalized project of short duration with unique and unknown outcomes. Typically, this is their capstone project, designed in collaboration with BIMS faculty. The benefits are huge. Planning an experiment requires consideration of all variables rather than a pertinent subset. It requires scheduling and preparation, background research on prior work done in the field, discipline in conducting work, discovery and repair of flaws in design, the deep thought needed to analyze and explain findings, the exacting nature of scientific writing. Where the other approaches teach skills and how to work in an active research setting, this approach gives students the added skills of leadership and project management. Ideal projects lead students to integrate learning from a variety of courses as they complete their work.
We believe “keeping it meaningful” means students will see the more global view of how research is designed and conducted so that no matter their future, they have the skills to face the unknown around them with confidence in their approach and toolbox for success.
Our second guiding principle is really simple: ”Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”. We believe it is important to teach our students to dream big but to dream with an ethical and moral anchor. With every big dream should come the question “Why are we doing this?”, and if we cannot answer that with something honorable and true and right, then we should consider why it should be done at all. Let our conscience guide our decision-making, rather than checking that at the door to our laboratories! This same ethical and moral gut-check goes for our career guidance, our course advising, and our options for capstone research. Every car needs an accelerator to move forward and accomplish amazing things. But it also needs a brake pedal and a steering wheel to turn that movement into productive action.
An example of how “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” works can be seen in some recent capstone projects. In recent years we have implemented systems for testing environmental estrogen-like compounds, germination assays for bacterial spores, and fermentation physiology for beer production. In each case, the project was tailored to the skills and abilities and career goals of the student. In each case we had to scale back the scope of the project to help students find success in the limited amount of time available. One recent group of students in Advanced Microbiology was studying resistance and germination of various mutant strains of Bacillus thuringiensis and Bacillus cereus. As the students in the course brainstormed about directions this could take, we continually brought the discussion back to manageable parameters with the phrase, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”. We ended up with a limited project that could be completed in one semester and which resulted in posters for the students that were entered in (and won) an undergraduate research competition at another university. Good research is more about depth of thought and analysis than breadth of work with shallow analysis and interpretation.
Even beyond the practical limitations for what we should do in research, we need to be teaching our students self-restraint when it comes to what is moral and ethical, keeping their efforts centered on what is honorable, true and right – and not just on what is possible. If we don’t ingrain in our students the importance of using that filter to rein in big dreams for the sake of fostering edifying dreams, we are failing in McMurry’s mission to build a better leader for tomorrow.