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Statistics With Undergrads

21 Aug

This summer, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on analytics. I’ve been trying to get a better feel for what I can expect of my research students and where I can better train them. I think that my research students are now getting to the point that they can often (but not always) generate meaningful figures on their own and interpret them properly. Can I expect more? Should I expect more?

Over the summer, I’ve seen a high number of papers and blogs related to the problem in reporting p-values in published research without some estimate of an effect size (of which, my favorites include the February write-up in Nature and the very recent post on FiveThirtyEightScience). I’ll be honest: I’ve been slow to get on board with reporting effect sizes in my own research and I’ve done a worse job incorporating this into the way I train my research students. In part, I’ve not done this because the simplest forms of calculating effect sizes (e.g., Cohen’s d) don’t always explicitly translate to the type of statistics that I use with my data (i.e., multiple variables that are analyzed using regression based statistics such as mixed-effects models) and obtaining, and correctly interpreting, things like beta coefficients from these types of models is difficult [at least in R]. Nonetheless, I understand and agree with the critiques associated with the search for p < 0.05… but do we properly train or students in statistical interpretation or are we facilitating the problem in the way that we teach statistics?

In a brief “survey” on this topic via Twitter and Facebook, a few [N=5; admittedly low power] of my colleagues from Allegheny and other institutions chimed in and I was happy to see that 3 of them stated that they have at least 1 lecture in which they explicitly teach basic effect sizes using Cohen’s d and/or the use of confidence intervals; 1 stated that there is an emphasis on devaluing on p-values when reported alone. However, I imagine that if I were to choose a Biology student at Allegheny and provide them with a figure and a p-value of 0.03 and asked them to interpret the figure, they would proudly exclaim, with little hesitation, that there is a significant difference between treatment x and treatment y [and I have a hunch that this type of answer would extend to Psychology students and probably Economic students as well]. I’d be very surprised if they ever questioned statistical power or even brought up anything close to a critique on the result because of the lack of an effect size.

So, for those of us who do not teach stats, how do we emphasize the importance of effect sizes with our research students? Is it something that we attempt train them with? I can’t imagine even one of my better students sitting down and running a mixed-effects statistical model, such as a zero-inflated negative binomial model, on their own. Asking them to do that plus correctly pull out the standardized regression coefficients for each predictor would be insane. Or, do we train them with the concept and provide them with a completed statistical analysis?

For those of you who do teach stats, how do you incorporate this into undergraduate level statistics courses? If you do teach effect sizes, do you integrate them into every analysis or do you show them effect sizes in one or two occasions and leave it at that? If the latter, what prevents you from training students correctly?

For those of you who are faculty who mentor our undergraduates as graduate students, what are your expectations for statistical knowledge for an incoming student? What would you recommend as focal points for statistical training at the undergraduate level?

Best wishes to all of you as you start the new academic year.

-Venesky

UPDATE (8/27)
Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking about stats with undergrads over the summer. Joan Strassman over at Sociobiology blogged on a similar topic earlier in August that I did not see (I was largely out of the blogging scene over the summer while working with my students).

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.

How Do You Recruit New Students Into Your Lab?

25 Feb

One of the challenges that PIs of research labs at liberal arts colleges face is the “revolving door” problem — students graduate and their vacancies need to be filled with new students. In principle, this isn’t much different than when PIs at research universities graduate their MS and PhD students; however, we face at least 3 unique circumstances in the liberal arts setting. First, our new students often lack the basic research skills that many incoming graduate students have (“You mean I was supposed to write that down?” “Randomize what?”). Second, in liberal arts research labs, PIs frequently do the majority of the scientific training of incoming students whereas it is common for undergraduates to work primarily with senior level graduate students when receiving their training (or, in some cases, take part of in multilevel training). Lastly, undergraduate students sometimes want to do research with multiple faculty members while completing their degree and thus it is fairly common to train a student for a semester and lose her/him from your research group. Because of this, we can have less overlap between our senior-level and incoming research students.

I’m not blindsided by these challenges and this post shouldn’t be taken as my hidden wish that I was conducting research in a different setting. However, as I finish up my 2nd year as a PI, I’m now starting to cycle through students and I’m trying to think through the logistics of how I can have some institutional lab knowledge passed from cohort to cohort so that students have the opportunity to train their peers and so that I can maintain my sanity.

One approach that I’ve found particularly effective is to embrace teaching in the introductory sequence in your department/program. At Allegheny, we have 3 courses in our Intro Sequence; I’ve taught our 2nd intro course the first 3 of my 4 semesters at Allegheny and I also taught our 3rd course all but my 1st semester. I’ve previously blogged about our 3rd course (FSBio 201) and if you have a course like this at your institution, this is an easy way to recruit students interested in your research. However, our 2nd course (Bio 221, Genetics, Development, and Evolution) is a traditional lecture course and faculty generally view teaching these courses more “departmental service” than anything else. However, I’ve built amphibian/chytrid case studies into this course in a number of different areas, which has made the material more exciting to me and also to the students. I’ve also recruited 3 of my current, and 1 of my incoming, students from this course. Recruiting sophomores into your research lab has the potential for tremendous payoffs in terms of research productivity. In my case, this core group of 3 students should each graduate from Allegheny with 3-4 publications each (including a 1st authored publication for each of them).

I also advertise and accept independent research students into my lab every semester. During my first 2 years at Allegheny, I’ve averaged 4 students each semester. These students are frequently sophomores with high energy and eager to ask questions (but lack general research skills and a knowledge of the literature). When taking students, I expect them to start and finish a research project and thus I fully commit to this process myself. The idea is that through time, my involvement in the training will be less and less of a time commitment because these independent research students contain a mix of prospective, incoming, and senior-level students on the same project. I’ve been lucky to retain many of the students that have worked with me and I think that my approach of continually taking on new research students will pay dividends down the road as I’m able to let students train each other more frequently.

Lastly, because I work with charismatic critters, I have an opportunity to get students interested in research simply because amphibians are pretty awesome. I frequently ask my research students to invite some of their friends who are interested in research out with us on collecting trips, evening salamander migrations, or amphibian call surveys. This is my hook for students that might not know the benefits of getting involved in faculty research. This is the fun and glamorous part of the research: little work and seeing amphibians in the field [sometimes for the 1st time for students!].

-MDV

Why You Need to Re-Submit Your NSF Pre-Proposal

16 Jan

Last year, Travis Wilcoxen and I submitted what was at the time my first NSF pre-proposal for some collaborative work on stress physiology and disease ecology. At that time, finding the time to complete a grant proposal wasn’t too far in left field because I was given some teaching release my 1st semester at Allegheny and my only course was actually co-taught with another faculty member. The reviews came back and they were generally positive (1 Excellent, 1 Very Good, 1 Poor); however, the proposal wasn’t considered for a full proposal.

I spent most of my summer working with 2 of students, one of whom worked on a project whose data was slotted to be used in the re-submission. The data came out beautiful and did a fantastic job in filling in one of the gaps (and critiques) of our previous proposal submission.

About half way through my Fall semester, I was already exhausted from a challenging and demanding semester. Among other things, I had a normal teaching load (at Allegheny, this is 2 courses and also advising Senior Comp Research students) and I was in the midst of putting together my file requesting that my position as a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) get converted to a tenure-track position at Allegheny and also applying for tenure-track positions at other institutions as a back-up plan. At the time, my inclination was to put the pre-proposal revision on hold, either temporarily or permanently. The dismal NSF funding rate coupled with the fact that I was at a PUI didn’t give me any confidence boost that our re-submission would fare any better than the original proposal.

In November, I officially heard that my position as a VAP at Allegheny was converted to a tenure-track position, which mean that I was also able to re-negotiate a start-up package that reflected the research expectations for a tenure-track faculty member and not a VAP. Given the generous start-up, I was confident that I could continue the research productivity that would satisfy my own expectations for scholarly activity and also what was expected for faculty at Allegheny. Plus, it is not necessary for us to successfully land a large extramural grant to be considered for tenure. I had essentially written off every notion of the re-submission.

Earlier this week, I submitted 2 different NSF pre-proposals. One of which was the re-submission of the proposal on which I am the PI; the second was a 1st time submission for a proposal on which I am the co-PI. What changed? Certainly not the amount of time in any given day nor my commitment to my family during the break before Spring semester.

The first was the reaffirmation that it would improve my research by simply revising and resubmitting the proposal, regardless of whether it was considered for a full proposal or turned down again. I don’t have the time to read as many papers as I did as a postdoc and although I had a productive 1st year at Allegheny (I published 2 projects that I started here with 8 different undergraduate students from my 1st year), I wasn’t writing as much as I hoped (yes, I really do enjoy writing papers. seriously.). At a minimum, revising the proposal would get me past the Abstracts of the hand full of PDFs that had been piling up in the “Need to Read” folder on my desktop. Additionally, it got me back writing. I hadn’t written any type of scientific writing for an audience outside of my Department the entire semester and that was way too long [for me]. I’ve always felt that one of my assets and writing strengths that helped maintain a high publication rate was the fact that I was always writing. I never fell out of practice and it was always easy to pick back up. Fall 2014 I was out of practice and I knew it. Thus, revising this pre-proposal would actually help me later to write up the recent projects that my students and I have completed.

The second was that it would improve my teaching. I am offering a new course this semester: a Junior Seminar on Disease Ecology. My course is designed so that students read some of the classic ideas in disease ecology from a text book and supplement those ideas with student-lead discussions of case studies in the primary literature. I had yet to finish compiling the reading list for this course and I knew that getting back in the literature on stress physiology and disease ecology would also introduce me to some of the newer papers in this field, some of which I ultimately selected for my Disease Ecology course. Although some of you may not have an opportunity to teach a course similar in style as my Junior Seminar, there are always opportunities to work in new case studies into traditional lecture courses.

Lastly (but most importantly), I think that my work can be funded by NSF. I think that my proposal addresses an important gap in knowledge in disease ecology and I think that the results from the projects that I am proposing to do can transform our understanding of why diseases sometimes cause epidemics and other times do not. In the midst of a pretty busy semester, I let the reviews get to me and I convinced myself that NSF wasn’t interested in funding such a small fish in a big pond. But that simply isn’t true. I took a job at a liberal arts college (and subsequently started this blog with two of my friends) because I believed that I can do quality research in this setting. I stand firm in that belief.

So, with the looming deadline for IOS pre-proposals later this evening, I wish you all good luck as you submit yours.

-MDV

Taking a Position as a Visiting Assistant Professor

30 Oct

The Scenario

It is December and you’ve applied for a handful [or more] tenure-track positions. Maybe you’ve had some success (short list, phone interview); maybe you haven’t. In some years, there is a second wave of tenure-track postings… but that isn’t always the case. At about this time, you should expect to see an increase in the number of Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) positions and you ask yourself, should I apply for a VAP? As somebody who took a VAP out of my postdoc, I had many questions about whether this was a good career move… and I quickly found that there weren’t too many answers for my questions. Here is my experience during my application process and my road to a tenure-track position.

My Job Search

I knew that I wanted a position in a liberal arts setting about 3 years into my Ph.D. so I applied almost exclusively to PUIs. I was on the job market for 2 years (the 1st year I was hardly competitive and probably wouldn’t have left my postdoc position at that point anyways). I had guaranteed funding for another couple years as a postdoc and had the luxury of applying at a leisurely pace. My 2nd year, I applied to 5 tenure-track positions and 1 VAP (at Allegheny). I got two offers for tenure-track positions, both of which came about 1 week after I interviewed for the VAP at Allegheny. I immediately turned one down and bought enough time with the second offer to consider my options and ruminate over a daunting question: do I turn down a second tenure-track offer without an offer from another school? After talking with the chair of the department regarding the VAP position, I did the unthinkable — I turned down a second tenure-track offer for a potential offer… for a non-tenure track VAP. My feeling about the VAP at Allegheny paid off and I was shortly offered the position. That position turned into a tenure-track position at Allegheny and I rarely think about how chaotic those couple weeks in 2013 were.

Consider These Before Taking a VAP

After I selectively applied to colleges and universities that met my specific set of requirements for what I wanted in an institution, I had a couple of “must haves” before I would even consider taking a VAP.

Is the position a 1-, 2-, or 3-year position? To me, this was probably the biggest factor and I would not have taken the position at Allegheny (in fact, I likely would not have even applied for it) if it were not a 3-year position. A 1-year was out of the question for a number of reasons (one of which I discuss below). A 2-year position didn’t even make my cut because the last thing that I wanted to do was have to start immediately applying for new positions within my 1st year on the job. I think that a 3-year is enough time so that you can establish some type of cohesive story in your CV, be that starting and finishing a research project and an opportunity to teach a course more than a single time.

Will you have any lab space and/or start-up funds? To me, this went hand-in-hand with the previous question and was a deal breaker. Although I knew my priority as a professor at a PUI would be teaching, I was not going to abandon my research program in any way, shape, or form. Thus, it was a requirement that I would be offered some type of lab space (shared was OK) and some type of start-up package to fund my research. I knew that I would be on the job market again during year 2 of my 3-year position and it was my goal to start and complete at least 1 project with Allegheny students.

Can you see yourself growing as an instructor and researcher? Your goal is to land a tenure-track position and you should only take a VAP if you can see yourself benefiting from the position. During my interview for the VAP, I identified 2 faculty that could potentially serve as informal teaching mentors and 2 faculty that could potentially serve as research mentors were I to get an offer. This was important to me because I wanted to learn from their experiences on how I could be a better professor.

Is there any possibility that the position could be converted to a tenure-track position? Before I even started preparing my application for the VAP, I asked the chair 3 questions: would I have lab space? would I get start-up funds? is there a possibility that the position could be converted to a tenure-track line? I was open from the get go and our chair was just as open back: yes, yes, and possibly. I gently pushed the issue a couple of times and learned more about the hiring history at Allegheny (one that includes a track record of retaining VAPs by converting them to tenure-track lines). By scanning CVs of the faculty in Biology, I also noticed that at least 2 tenure-track faculty started off on VAP contracts. This was enough for me and felt about as good as anybody could about there being at least a possibility that my position could be converted.

Is This Common?

Well, I don’t know how common, but I know of a couple of folks in our department who were converted from VAPs. I also know that at least 1 other tenure-track professor in our department did a VAP at another institution before coming to Allegheny. I also know 2 very good friends who took VAPs before tenure-track positions, and they both ended up as highly competitive candidates and landed very nice tenure-track jobs (one of which is at an R1).

So, would I recommend doing this? Yes… but it depends. My guess is that with the bleak outlook for landing tenure-track positions, this route may become even more common than it is already. It worked for me and I landed my dream job. Best of luck to you all as you search for yours.

-Venesky

Assessing Your Research Program

2 Sep

If you are at a research institution, the assessment of your research program is probably pretty straightforward and my guess is that you primarily use some combination of grant dollars, publications, and the # of students that you finish as the primary metrics in your assessment. Biological research in the liberal arts setting often moves slower than in a R1 setting because the bulk of our research activity comes during the summer and we squeeze scientific writing into chunks of time that we carve out from teaching. Thus, we frequently publish at a slower rate and apply for fewer grants than our colleagues in the research setting (there are certainly other reasons for this difference also). In addition, my guess is that few faculty at PUIs do not get training on how to scale their research down from their graduate/postdoc training to match the skill sets that our undergraduate students bring to the table, the resources that we now have, and the amount of time that we can spend on research. How do we formally assess our research program? How often do we do it? What metrics should we use to guide whether our research program is thriving in the liberal arts environment?

Here are a couple of ideas that I’ve been thinking of as I enter the 2nd year of a faculty position at a liberal arts college. This list is not exhaustive nor is a “one size fits all”, but hopefully it will spark some conversation on the topic.

1. Where are your graduates now? Tracking whether your students make it to tenure-track positions might not be too informative in the liberal arts setting because those data will not be available to you for another 7-10 years. However, we can still track the career paths of our graduates… and I’d argue that we can usually do this easier in the liberal arts setting than faculty at large schools. The atmosphere in smaller colleges and universities is generally more intimate than large institutions and my guess is that we probably keep in touch with a higher % of our graduates than faculty at larger universities do. Keep track of what your students do next. At PUIs, you’ll likely have a students with a more diverse set of career paths than if you were dealing primarily with graduate students. Embrace that difference and think of ways in which their research experience in your lab helped them land the job that they currently have. Be blunt and ask their honest opinion as to whether they felt that the research experience in your lab was important in setting them apart from other candidates for the job that they currently have. If they go on to graduate school, keep tabs on whether their productivity as an undergraduate correlates with their productivity as a graduate student.

2. How many students get authorship on your papers? Many liberal arts colleges have explicit guidelines as to what they expect in terms of student involvement in your research. As an institution, they are probably more interested in the number of papers that students co-author as opposed to how many papers you author. What proportion of your papers include undergraduate students from your current institution? Is this on par with your goal (do you even have a goal???)?

3. Where is the bulk of your research being conducted? Related to #2, does the bulk of your scientific productivity come as a collaborator or principle investigator? Does this line up with your vision of your research program? Do you need to start initiating more research projects in which you are lead author? Are you actively seeking out and building research collaborations with faculty at other (potentially larger) universities? Will doing that help or hinder your research program?

4. Are your publications in journals that researchers in your field regularly publish in? No matter what type of institution you are in, the journals that you publish your research in matters. Although faculty in the liberal arts setting might not publish as regularly as faculty at research institutions, I do not see any reason why we still can’t publish our research in the same journals as our colleagues at larger schools. As many of you know, I am a disease ecologist and I use amphibians and the pathogenic chytrid fungus as my model system. One of the ways in which I am assessing my own research program is by looking at the proportion of manuscripts (and even projects that I aim to start next summer) that will have a home in a herpetological journal or a non-taxon specific journal (zoology or ecology journal). While I have nothing against the herpetology journals, the aim of my research program is to understand host-parasite ecology and I wouldn’t be meeting all of my research goals if the majority of my work was geared towards herpetology journals.

5. Ask a colleague for a quick assessment. I have yet to do this, but it is something that I am considering somewhere around Year 3. Chances are good that you’ll be preparing documents for your pre-tenure review at about this time anyways. Whereas the pre-tenure review will give you an idea of what your current institution thinks of your research productivity, you may want to get some external feedback from some of your colleagues within your field. Be frank with them and tell them what you are looking to gain from their assessment. What do they view as your most important contributions to the scientific literature since you’ve been at your current institution? Is their assessment similar to your own? If your view of the quality of your own research is consistently higher than their view of your work, you might consider ways in which you can improve the quality of your research productivity.

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)?