When I originally described the nature of research here at Millikin University, way back when we first launched this blog (you can read that here), I explained that folks at this university are big on using the phrase ‘performance learning’. It seems easy to apply this concept of learning-by-doing to biology since developing research questions and hypotheses, testing them, and presenting the findings is largely what professionals in this field do. This emphasis is not exclusive to our department, or even the sciences, it is a university-wide intentional focus. I do think we are doing a great job of providing students with this valuable experience within the basic constructs of our curriculum and other activities on campus. The reality is that we can always do better.
A new initiative: the PLEG
The administration here at Millikin established an initiative three years ago to take the promotion of performance learning one step further – specifically to take the performance learning activities we complete at Millikin and bring in third-party stakeholders. The purpose was twofold: 1) promote Millikin and the skills that our students our developing to the world outside of the university, thus increasing visibility of the institution and hopefully increasing recruitment of students to the university and placement of students following graduation, and 2) improve the overall educational and performance learning experience of our students by collaborating with individuals from outside the university who can share their own, unique expertise.
The biggest challenge here, like many other universities, is to come up with the money to fund these endeavors. Currently, the PLEG is a competitive award, with fewer than 10 faculty members receiving these awards in the first two years in which they were offered. I am not entirely sure exactly how many proposals were submitted each year. Keep in mind that every professor on campus already uses performance-based learning in their approach to teaching, and there is no specific requirement that everyone involve a third-party stakeholder, so everyone did not apply. I was already working on a collaboration with an organization outside of the university and we came up with a solid research plan that I submitted as a PLEG. proposal for the 2013-2014 academic year. My proposal was funded, in full, and I now have three research students working on this as what will become their senior thesis projects. I have also devised a plan to incorporate some of the data and samples we collect from this project into the laboratory portion of my Physiological Ecology course.
My PLEG project
The collaboration is with the Illinois Raptor Center (IRC), a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center here in Decatur that specializes in the rehabilitation of birds of prey. The program director at the IRC and I have had many conversations over the past two years about the valuable data that could be obtained from the birds that arrive at their facility, specifically in regards to disease ecology and impacts of environmental fluctuations on the physiology of raptors. The grant funds equipment for the hospital at the IRC that will be used to collect our samples, assay materials to be used in my lab at the university, mileage to and from the IRC, and travel and meeting expenses for three students and I to present our work at a future conference.
The research students working on this project are all biology majors with Pre-Veterinary concentrations. They will be gaining hands-on, veterinary experience coincident with the rehabilitation of these birds, and will also be collecting samples for analysis of disease prevalence, immune function, stress physiology, and other condition and hematological measures that are indicative of overall health and condition. This experience will undoubtedly look great on a vet school application. From an ecology standpoint, I look forward to addressing important questions about how early-life conditions for these birds may have contributed to their arrival at a rehabilitation center as well as better understanding disease transmission and prevalence in the local populations. Another benefit is that we will have plenty of data to work with as the IRC receives approximately 200-300 birds per year. I look forward to publishing our findings and to my students and I presenting our findings at scientific meetings. We will also gain a valuable link to an organization that is well known and respected in this community (and throughout the region). The IRC model for sustenance is also congruent with what we want our students to gain from this interaction. The IRC provides educational programs on basic raptor natural history and conservation to help fund their rehabilitation efforts and will undoubtedly incorporate results of our collaboration into those programs. In addition, the folks at the IRC are excited to share this information with other raptor rehabilitation facilities and we all truly hope that our work provides ideas for best practices in rehabilitation.
Biology does not exist in a vacuum, so performance learning in biology should expand well beyond the walls of the buildings on this campus. I am really looking forward to this collaboration and watching these students develop into excellent veterinarians (and physiological ecologists, even if that was not their intention…).