Getting your Undergraduate TAs a Publication

28 Apr

The idea of “inquiry based learning” is not novel and is by no means only practiced in PUIs. However, I’d argue that a disproportionately larger number of faculty at PUIs build courses (and/or labs) around this idea for at least two reasons: we spend a larger proportion of our time teaching and these types of courses provide us opportunities to build our labs with undergraduate researchers (we do not have the luxury of advertising and recruiting a graduate student or postdoc for a particular project). Because of this, it is my view that we should excel at incorporating these techniques into our curricula.

I recently completed a course called Investigative Approaches in Biology (FSBio 201) in which 3rd/4th semester students learn how to design, conduct, and present results from independent group projects. This course is part of our curriculum at Allegheny and reflects our departments vision of how inquiry based learning can work. I’ve blogged about my specific module previously and I’ll likely share more of my experiences with this course as I continue to teach it because it is my favorite course at Allegheny. In addition, I know that other liberal arts colleges have a similar type of course which [I think] separates ourselves from Biology programs at larger schools… so I feel that this topic is of interest to the readership of our blog.

In each module, faculty select a canned laboratory experiment that students complete so that they can familiarize themselves with the research topic and use it as a foundation for their independent group project. I selected a topic that was directly related to my research, something that could be completed within a 2-week time period, and something for which the answer was not yet known. This is a bit risky, especially if students are required to write up their results as part of some lab report (we all know that writing up negative results is a tough sell, especially for undergraduates). However, I think this is a necessary step and a teaching moment: our students learn as early as their 3rd semester that science moves because we test hypotheses and sometimes we do not have enough evidence to reject our null hypothesis. In my particular module, the experiment worked and my students’ data clearly supported our predictions.

All is good… and this story might actually be common in your course(s) at your institution. However, I’m curious as to how frequently faculty at PUIs pursue this project and attempt to directly contribute to the scientific community by writing up their results and submitting their manuscript for publication? I am giving this a shot in my course. I re-analyzed some of the qPCR data for quality control and was able to confirm that the data that the students collected were in line with what I collected independent of their work. I asked my TAs if they would be interested in writing up the results as a manuscript and, not surprisingly, all 4 were interested. We have discussed the results as a group during our TA meetings and have spent some time via email going back and forth on their interpretations of the data. One of the TAs is planning on taking lead on the paper and I am going to work with her to come up with a detailed outline for the manuscript. Two of the remaining TAs are going to take a stab at writing the methods section and I am going to work with them all on the results. Hopefully the product will be an accepted manuscript in a peer reviewed scientific journal.

Here is where I would like some of your input. How often do we, as faculty, provide our students (or TAs) with opportunities to do things like this? How do we balance the risks with building a laboratory project that gives students opportunities to explore their own scientific ideas with “failing” at an experiment? When is this not an appropriate activity (i.e., allowing freshman to do this would be a disaster)? Do inquiry based learning laboratory projects work as successful in courses that are not designed to teach students the fundamentals of experimental design/execution (i.e., would this experiment have worked equally well if I did it as part of a Herpetology course instead of our FSBio course)?


5 Responses to “Getting your Undergraduate TAs a Publication”

  1. Terry McGlynn April 28, 2014 at 7:00 PM #

    I’ve tried this twice, both times without success. Once was with an insect bio upper division lab, and the other time was with a behavioral ecology class.

    I think that it’s a wonderful idea. But I haven’t seen it happen successfully elsewhere much at all, and I don’t think it’s for a lack of trying. Which leads me to suspect that there are inherent things that keep it from working. You’d think that a well-designed inquiry-based lab would be able to generate publishable data. I thought that, too.

    My problems were not exceptional. I had trouble with quality assurance because different students (or groups of students) were doing slightly different things that resulted in too much variance (or loss of reliability) in the results. Things didn’t turn out as cleanly as I had imaged at first (which is normal) but I wasn’t able to correct course in the middle of the project, because students were doing this for the course, not for a manuscript. There are just a lot of little details that I had trouble controlling or keeping track of that made the project really messy and not worth writing up.

    A lot of the best lessons learned in undergrad labs, at least in my view, come from realizing what went wrong in the process. But if more than a little goes wrong in a lab, then that makes it something that’s not worth publishing. The only way to really get a paper out of a course project would be to make sure that it’s an effort led by a single individual who keeps tabs of all of the things that could go wrong and to bash variability out of the system. Which also constrains number of choices that the students make, which limits what they learn.

    I decided a while ago that the path to getting publishable data — for me at least — was to completely divorce my research program from the labs that I teach. If I incorporate the two, then I compromise the ability to get either one done well. What I do get out of labs is the chance to identify promising researchers and get them to do research outside the curriculum. (Now that I haven’t taught labs in a while, I’m missing out on this.) I spent a few years spinning my wheels to somehow integrate my research into my teaching, and I think those were mostly wasted years. Of course, using research and inquiry in labs is essential, but I just don’t even try to get pubs out of that. (If I did research on pedagogy, then that would be really tempting. But I don’t.)

    • Matthew Venesky April 28, 2014 at 7:20 PM #

      Thanks for the input. I’ve thought in detail about the data quality issue, which is why I independently verified a subset of the samples myself.

      How would you rank the rigor/robustness of the projects? Based off your comments (eg, want able to correct course in the middle of the project), I think our projects might be on different scales. My idea going in was to have the TAs run the project (they are junior/senior level undergrads) and have them guide their peers on the data collection dates. Thus, there were 5 knowledgeable people keeping tabs on data collection. Outside of that, it was more the TA project than mine in terms of work. Could biting off smaller, yet significant, projects be a key to success?

      • Terry McGlynn April 28, 2014 at 7:41 PM #

        Cool that you can get it to work! I was shooting for a minimum publishable unit paper with a local/regional journal. But I also didn’t have a TA coordinating things. I didn’t want to be the pushy professor making a course lab into a publishable project. (I hear that has happened with sine faculty on field courses, like some SFS sites). But having it be a project of the TA, that could be cool.

      • Matthew Venesky April 28, 2014 at 7:45 PM #

        Ahhh. I have 4 TAs (writing intensive and they provide the bulk of the comments on initial drafts). They also understood my study system and 1 was a genius on qPCR.


  1. Guidelines for Class Projects as Publishable Research | The Liberal Arts Ecologists | Small Universities. Big Ecology. - May 14, 2015

    […] little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post on my attempt to get my teaching assistants (TAs) a publication with some data that I collected […]

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