BIMS 1300 is a bit of an unusual course to start the BIMS major out on. The title is “Introduction to Scientific Research”, and yet we spend the majority of our time playing and designing games, with only limited time spent discussing the scientific method, the structure of a scientific paper, and the importance of ethical and moral behavior in the sciences. So it might come as a shock that one of the key features of the final exam is the analysis of a scientific paper taken from the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.
All semester long, I have been telling the 33 students in the class (mostly freshmen) that our approach to learning how scientific research is conducted is taken from “The Karate Kid” – we do things seemingly unrelated to science to learn about science. So we played games to learn about variable and constants, how to use deductive reasoning to isolate variables in order to win the game. The mid-term exam included a simple Sudoku! We read excerpts from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” to learn about observation and controlled experimental design. I give them an article called “Delusions of Gender” that is a great example of how inductive reasoning can go awry if taken beyond the limits of logic. We ran through examples of research misconduct and discussed the high costs of research and played “The Lab” at the NIH-ORI website.
And their final exam included evaluation of a scientific paper. They told me which paragraphs fit into each part of an IMRAD format paper. They evaluated logic used in the Results and Discussion section. They identified variables and constants in the table and figure. Then, on page two of the exam they looked at a flawed study, pointed out the mistakes and designed a better approach. And they explained how the games their groups created use these same methods and approaches and skills.
How did they do? As students in the course have done over the past four years, they were able to show me they “get it” about how we use the tools of science on a daily basis as we go about our decision-filled lives. And I am certain the experience of this class will help our students approach their sophomore classes, including organic chemistry, genetics, and human physiology from a more critical and thoughtful perspective.
One of the most popular television shows on the Discovery Channel is Mythbusters. Their crew of special effects experts, engineers, and scientists look at myths and popular science through the eyes of controlled experimentation for the purpose of “confirming” or “busting” rumors and myths. It is not surprising that such a show would be a hit, as the origins of modern experimental science include the reports of the Royal Society of London in their journal “Philosophical Transactions” where amateur and professional scientists from around the world reported on their putting nature to the test. Can spiders run out of a circle made from powdered unicorn horn? That’s where you would go to find the answer! In many ways, the Royal Society, with members like Newton and Boyle and Hooke and others, was the first “science club” and gave us the blueprint for the way modern experimental science is done.
In our BIMS 1300 Introduction to Scientific Research class we are looking at the efforts of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters crew to see whether their experimental approaches to testing nature in past episodes can be improved upon. Four teams of students will be watching Mythbusters episodes this weekend and presenting cases from the Mythbuster files and then improving upon the science – identifying and accounting for additional variables, improving upon the controls, etc. – for the purpose of demonstrating their knowledge of how science is done. What good is learning about how experiments are set up without actually setting some up? How better than to analyze and improve upon the experiments of others!
So what will it be: the exploding outhouse? the five-second rule? We’ll see which of the hundreds of clips and stories from the Mythbuster archives are chosen for presentations and re-thinking in the lab during the next few weeks.
It is hard to teach lab-intensive courses without labs. That truth is very apparent to us as we enter the second week of classes with at least another four weeks of work remaining before our labs are ready for occupancy. Though the walls now have sheetrock and mud and tape, the work left to be done is staggering. Finish and paint, installation of doors and windows, flooring and cabinetry and equipment – all these and more are left to do to turn cold, sterile spaces into a home for science. After all, you need an autoclave to teach microbiology; you need incubators to teach the biology of unicellular organisms.
Yet, the work of educating students continues, albeit modified. There are adaptations galore as we find alternative activities that teach the same principles in labless spaces. Today in BIMS 1300 Introduction to Scientific Research we saw a case in point. The topic for the day was use of logic and the scientific method to solve mysteries and problems. What better way to teach that than by playing Clue and Mastermind! Students identified the variables and recognized the problems occurring when one doesn’t isolate and address them. It became clear very quickly that careful annotation of results can help reduce possibilities and hone in on the answer. Students enjoyed an unconventional way of approaching learning central to the work of a scientist. Make an observation, pose a question, predict an outcome, conduct an experiment, analyze the results, and move on to the next question. All of those elements track perfectly with the logic going into figuring out of Col. Mustard did it in the dining room with a rope. At the conclusion of the lab, students fit their decision-making processes into the format of the scientific method. All agreed that this was an exceptionally effective way to get a grasp of the thought processes and skills we all possess to one agree or another that enable us to interrogate nature.