Tag: experimental design
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.
Today the Microbiology students took their lab skills test. I give them two opportunities to show their proficiency in streaking plates, performing aseptic transfers, pipetting, using a spectrophotometer, reading biochemical test results and indentifying bacteria, describing colonies, doing Gram stains, finding and describing cells under the microscope, cleaning up bacterial spills, designing experiments, and writing Materials & Methods. Those who did not perform up to expectations will have another chance in about a week. After all, my goal is not to see what they’ve learned by Thanksgiving – it is to insure they have the skills mastered by the time the course is completed. What is more important than when.
None of these skills were taught independently in this course. All were learned as students did research projects, using a “just-in-time” approach to teaching. Aseptic technique was taught when we needed to inoculate tubes and plates for purification and identification. Smears and staining were taught when we needed to determine which biochemical tests to inoculate and rapid ID panels to use. Spectroscopy and dilution methods and pipetting were taught when we needed to conduct pour plate counts to follow survival of cells following exposure to radiation. In every instance, there was a reason and connectedness between what we were doing and a clear goal we were trying to achieve. Techniques were not islands unto themselves but instead means used to discover the truth at the end of the journey.
We believe students learn better, retain better, and are more engaged in their work when this approach is taken. That is why the BIMS program is skills driven, research-rich, and product-oriented.
Dr. Tom Benoit has his students taking a deeper look into a topic that all-too-many college students have a great interest in – fermentation. As part of his BIMS 1300 Introduction to Scientific Research class, his students are not focusing on the suds-producing process of alcoholic beverage production but instead on the metabolic process of fermentation conducted by yeast cells when given a ready source of useable carbohydrate. Benoit’s class is exploring the impact of modifying a broth medium on the fermentation rate of the common bread yeast, Saccharomyces ellipsoideus. Students are challenged to make modifications to environmental conditions and nutrients in the growth media to see how they impact growth rates, as evidenced by the carbon dioxide production in fermentation tubes. One group is looking at artificial sweeteners based on sugars and comparing growth to that from sucrose, as an example of the type of work being done.
The true value of the work is not in the results they obtain – those things are already known to science. However, they are not necessarily known to these students, and so pursuing this line of investigation helps sharpen their skills in defining a problem, posing interesting questions, designing controlled experiments, and analyzing results. They also sharpen their lab skills by having to set up and conduct a controlled study. Such preparation is essential to insure that they are ready for the moments in future classes when they are charged with designing experiments that delve into the unknown, whether that is in studying medical bacteria, cancer cells, gene sequences, or some other common project in the BIMS program.