Teaching methods for laboratory courses.

My enrollment in this course has driven me to actively seek materials on teaching: something I would never have predicted three years ago as a highly research-driven new holder of a BS degree. The transition has been easier than I expected and I now realize that the reasons I thrived in my undergraduate course of study were largely due to the skilled mentorship I received from esteemed scientists who cared more about teaching than I realized.

I was browsing through the online archives of a favorite open-access journal of mine, PLoS Biology, and found a short communication that is particularly relevant to my previous teaching experience as well as my career goals. Those of you in departments that rely on laboratories as a major component of undergraduate teaching may find the following article useful:

Integrating Teaching and Research in Undergraduate Biology Laboratory Education
Full text available here.

The article criticized traditional “cook-book” style biology laboratories in favor of courses that integrate authentic research-driven activities. Though structured and heavily supervised, the authors involved students in hypothesis-driven original fieldwork that facilitated development of real intellectual and technical skills. This experience directly emphasized the skills necessary for careers involving scientific discourse, and also benefits the instructors/investigators by generating novel data. While it takes significant resources to establish such a program, the authors suggest that it is highly beneficial to all involved. I enthusiastically agree.

I have been on both the teaching and receiving ends of these kinds of courses, and I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with them. In fact, wet labs were some of my favorite classes as an undergraduate. However, it is critical to supplement these classes with true experiences involving formulation and testing of worthwhile questions. As I begin to plan my future impact as a faculty member in biology, I will heavily reference such approaches.

For those who are interested, the authors posted a list of six guidelines for founding undergraduate research-based laboratory courses, which can be found for free at the above link, and are applicable to almost any scientific field.

1 thought on “Teaching methods for laboratory courses.

  1. As an undergraduate I participated in probably one of the most hands on, research intensive undergrad programs that I know of, and it was incredible. As a participant in the Boston University Marine Program (BUMP) I spent 2 semesters doing nothing but research with a little bit of coursework thrown into the mix (www.bu.edu/bump). The program is structured each semester into 4 blocks; there is one course per block and we were required to develop, implement, and analyze a research project for each class. Think the scientific process, but in hyperspeed. Our projects included background research, field and or lab work, statistical analyses, and some research symposium presentations. There is no need to teach the steps of the scientific process when you are living and breathing it.

    It absolutely made up my decision to continue my education so I could continue that type of work. And even those students who finished the program and decided that research wasn’t their calling describe how much they learned in the program about creative thinking and especially about problem solving. However, I don’t think I would have gotten nearly as much out of the program had I not first experienced my basic intro bio labs, where we learned how take measurements, analyze samples, etc. WIthout the basics, I would not have been able to complete my research. I think you are right, both types of courses have their place and I think it is essential that all students have the opportunity to participate in both.

    Cheers,
    Pamela

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