Guidelines for Class Projects as Publishable Research

14 May

The Background

A 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 from a laboratory in a course at Allegheny called FSBio 201: Investigative Approaches in Biology [you can also read a post that I wrote previously on research in the classroom, which might help contextualize that post]. The small class data set was eventually written in manuscript format by my TAs and it was recently published in the Journal of Herpetology. The entire experience, from training my TAs in data collection so that they could oversee the students as they collected data to working over the summer with one of the TAs to revise the manuscript, was such a positive experience that I attempted it again. This time through, I had a different group of students, TAs, and a different research question. The data were messy and the results didn’t make any sense, even after I cleaned them up by removing data that were collected from some of the less careful lab groups [a quick FYI: the research question was a good one — I am in the process of finalizing a manuscript based off the same exact question as the “failed” classroom project except that it was conducted by 4 independent research students instead of as part of a classroom project].

At that point, I had mixed feelings about whether I could reliably collect and publish data from classroom/laboratory projects. However, I gave it another shot during the Spring 2015 semester, this time with a group of juniors who were taking my Disease Ecology junior seminar course. The project was an overwhelming success and I am in the early stages of preparing the manuscript for consideration for publication; the manuscript will feature all 11 students who took the course as coauthors.

As I began my biannual reflection on the positive and negative aspects of the semester that I just completed, Terry McGlynn (at Small Pond Science) published a blog post that laid out some ideas why one might consider trying to collect publishable data from a laboratory that is part of a course that one taught. As you’ll read, his experience(s) were not as positive as mine and he lays out some thoughts on why this might not actually be an effective “high-impact practice” in the classroom. For me, one of the most important points Terry lists is data quality. Seeing as I’ve now been on both sides of the fence on this topic, I thought that I might lay out some ways in which I’ve been able to pull this off.

How I Turned Class Projects Into Publishable Research

Projects need to meet the minimum following criteria:

  1. laboratory projects that are relatively short in duration,
  2. they involve only a few numbers of groups (mine 3 attempts have used groups of 4, 4, and 3),
  3. there are watchful and knowledgeable eyes in the room (my FSBio courses have 4 groups of students and 3 TAs; my junior seminar course had 3 groups and did not have TAs but each group had a “group leader” who had previously done research in my lab),
  4. are set up so that I could independently collect data to verify their results (for me, this meant collecting some skin swabs immediately prior to students collecting their results and running qPCR on those samples to compare our data).

To me, ensuring data quality is of the highest importance, so I carefully plan ways I can verify results. This involves extra work on my end and setting up the class data collection dates so that I can frequently and accurately spot check my students work. For example, I use qPCR to determine the infection intensity of a fungal pathogen of amphibians in my research. Every research group always receives both exposed and non-exposed animals and the infection status of the animals is not immediately known to them. Because contamination (either DNA contamination or living infectious propagules) from an infected to non-infected or from an infected to another infected animal is a possibility with my research, any poor techniques would likely lead to a non-infected animal becoming exposed/infected with the pathogen or its’ DNA. Thus, if any non-exposed animal gets infected, I would not consider publishing any of the data. I also have what I call “duplicate” animals in each student’s group so that I can co-sample the same individual on the same day for comparative purposes. If our infection data from qPCR do not regularly match up, I would not consider publishing any of the data. Lastly, I often use digital photographs of data when possible to verify the students measures (e.g., I photographed the intestines of the tadpoles that I used in a student publication to make sure they measured the lengths correctly). From a mechanistic perspective, I think that having these 4 criteria are the minimum criteria (and adjusting based on the specifics to your discipline or particular project) that I would set before I considered turning a class project into a manuscript.

Although It Can Be Done, Is It Conceptually A Solid Idea?

In his post, Terry correctly articulates some drawbacks in doing the above. Without the correct context (namely, the nature of the course and the faculty members research program), not being mindful of some of the potential issues would not maximize the student’s learning experience. In particular, designing an experiment so that students are merely “data-collecting machines” is one of the biggest disservices that we could do to our students. Thus, when might it be a good context to explore publishable laboratory projects?

Given the two contexts in which I’ve gathered publishable data from class projects, my favorite context was in my Disease Ecology junior seminar and my guess is that I’ll focus my energy on data collection from this course rather than FSBio in future.

Although the particular experiment in Disease Ecology was planned by me, the students were in the drivers seat in terms of the research question, hypotheses, and design. In fact, with the proper consideration, this can happen quite easily. For the class project in Disease Ecology, I gave the students 2 papers to read before a laboratory period: one was a paper that I published earlier this year with some students at Allegheny documenting that different color morphs of a species of salamander respond to a pathogen differently and the second was a paper showing that these two color morphs have different temperature-specific metabolic rates. I then asked the 3 groups to identify some outstanding questions from each paper and through our discussion of these topics, they naturally came to the idea of testing for morph specific differences in disease resistance at different temperatures. We then proceeded to generate some hypotheses and design the fundamentals of the experiment. Thus, I was able to plan the experiment without simply giving the students specific instructions; they were not cogs in my research machine.

I found this approach very rewarding and the students responded very positively to this in their evaluations. However, it is still a bit artificial in the sense that there was really only a single direction in which the project could run. Thus, after a couple of weeks and the completion of that particular experiment (including all of the molecular work), the remainder of the laboratory sessions were allowed to pursue group projects of their own in which they thought up the question, generated hypotheses, and designed the experiment. In a sense, the first “cookbook” lab project served a second purpose: using a form of inquiry-based learning to train them in some of the basic techniques that they needed to carry out small independent projects of their own. In addition, they allowed students the flexibility to collect data on a topic that they were interested in (and, coincidentally, many of these topics were ones that they were introduced to in the form of a book chapter or scientific paper that we discussed during the “lecture” portion of the course). Although I have no intention on publishing any of these smaller independent group projects, they generated data that will serve as preliminary data for future independent study projects.

Closing Remarks

All said and done, I am an advocate for turning class projects into publishable research if they meet some minimum criteria, help achieve the student learning outcomes that you have for your course, and allow you to advance your own research program.

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2 Responses to “Guidelines for Class Projects as Publishable Research”

  1. Lori Patrick November 6, 2015 at 9:41 AM #

    This is a great post! I originally read it when it came out and my colleagues and I cited it in a forthcoming publication on how we run freshmen CUREs at LSU. We recently had some students ask how they should list their CURE research experience on their resume/CV and professional (mostly medical) school applications. For many of our students, one or two semesters of CURE in a lab course is all the exposure to research they are likely to get so many of the resume examples I’ve come across are not strictly applicable. Do you have any advice for how these students can highlight this experience in their application materials?

    • Matthew Venesky November 9, 2015 at 7:16 AM #

      Thanks, Lori. I’d probably list it exactly as such: “Research Experience” as a bullet point and detail some of the specific skills that they learned during the process. I’d also try, if possible, to have a letter writer (even if the letter writer isn’t the faculty member that worked with the student) highlight that in his/her letter of recommendation. I have a feeling that it would carry more weight in that context instead of simply on a CV.

      As a quick side, do you mind sending me your write-up for your CURE publication (either a pre-print or the published work when it comes out)? I’m really happy to hear that the post was beneficial for you!

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