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)?