Independent projects in large enrollment labs? Part II

Note from Jeremy: this is the second guest post in John DeLong‘s planned three part series on independent projects in large enrollment labs. Here’s part 1 if you missed it.

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We are about halfway through our experiment basing the labs of a large enrollment ecology and evolution course on independent projects and student-driven exercises. Our goal is to offer the students an authentic scientific experience that allows them to develop their own initiative, follow their own nose, and to develop skills whose utility they can appreciate. This post is the second of three installments on this endeavor.

The overarching lab philosophy is to put students in charge and to facilitate learning scientific skills in the context of their own work. This means that we try to offer up new ‘learning’ opportunities at the right time. For example, we put data collection ahead of analysis instead of trying to teach statistics before there is a reason to use them. This seems so logical now, but it is a departure from our previous offerings. The pedagogical conflict we run into, however, is that we sacrifice some of the breadth we could cover to give students more time to dig into a smaller set of techniques.

We then asked students to conduct mini-projects, which involved formulating a simple hypothesis and collecting the data to test it. The students then wrote a methods and results section about their project. We ran a peer-review exercise on the first drafts along with TA feedback on the second. In keeping with our goal of making each activity student-led, we also provided TA feedback that highlighted problem areas in their writing without telling them how to re-write the paper. Both the peer-review and the problem areas feedback exercises revealed that we need to add some exercises in writing and in writing evaluation. We plan on developing a topic-sentence and sentence-construction activity to help guide students toward clear writing.

Students are now setting up their independent projects, and as expected, they are diverging in project stage and progression. We anticipated this period being the most chaotic, as students are employing many different experimental systems from flies to seeds to fossil teeth. One of the things we drastically underestimated was the number of students who would choose a germination project of some sort, leading to major lighted space constraints, especially when light amount or light timing is a treatment. We also greatly overestimated the number of students who would work outside, meaning we have to accommodate nearly everyone indoors somewhere. Fortunately, several faculty around campus are giving students space, time, and resources to conduct their projects in research labs. This has been great and has led to some students already finding labs to work in after the class, but it also creates a time burden on those faculty. To minimize coordination effort, we attempted to consolidate students and have them interact with faculty as a group rather than one by one. This, however, cost these students a little time. Perhaps our biggest problem is that spring break is coinciding with the start of many students projects, creating a bit of a scheduling headache for student access to the lab, watering plants while people are away, and generally keeping crickets, worms, protists, and other things alive while they are gone. Next spring, we will start the independent projects a week earlier, since the mini-projects did not in the end need three weeks but only two, which should help.

Students are also highly divergent in how comfortable they are organizing and leading for themselves. Some had their projects up and running in a week; these students appear to be thriving. Others are still figuring it out and seem a bit overwhelmed. This type of outcome is unavoidable, especially since the class enrolls nearly graduating seniors who have already been through the MCATs and younger second-year students without any research experience at all. Therefore, we knew it was coming. The TAs and faculty who are lending a hand seem to be encouraging them along well enough. The course philosophy is to have students lead their own science, so our TAs are acting as mentors and trouble-shooters and resource gatherers, and as far as I can tell, there are currently no project disasters (knock on wood) or students without an executable plan.

My overall impression at this stage is so far so good. It was my intention to push students into a place where they get to do their own thing and have to face the outcome uncertainty and logistical challenges of pulling off a project. Although this is hard for some students, it still appears to be a greater learning opportunity than a canned lab.

Check back in mid-May for my wrap-up for the course.

3 thoughts on “Independent projects in large enrollment labs? Part II

  1. I’m not surprised that you’ve found you need to add writing and writing evaluation exercises. Back when I taught scientific writing, I had students review each other’s drafts, thinking that this would help them reflect on their own writing as well as give extra feedback. (“Hey, these sentences are really awkward, and I get lost trying to follow the logic in this paragraph. Wait, do I do that too?”) But I found that most students thought the others’ work was fine, perhaps because they were writing on the same topic and knew what the writer intended. They didn’t give much substantive feedback. Many of my students were failing to use transition words or phrases like “in addition,” “nevertheless,” and “in contrast,” which help a reader follow the logic of a paragraph. An exercise which I found helpful was to take a good paragraph, make all the sentences uniformly short and choppy and take out all transition words, and then ask them to fix it. Show them the original paragraph afterward.

    • My undergrad college–a small liberal arts college–had a student-run writing center (there may have been a faculty mentor doing some oversight? don’t recall for sure…). Anyway, if memory serves, it was staffed with unpaid volunteer juniors and seniors who wrote sufficiently well to be able to give useful writing advice to others. To be accepted as a volunteer, you first had to give sufficiently good feedback on a writing sample, with your feedback being evaluated by an experienced workshop volunteer (I applied junior year but wasn’t accepted). Any student was allowed to bring a draft of any written assignment for any class to the writing workshop for feedback. I think that was college policy (?)–profs had to let you use the writing workshop (and in practice, I recall multiple profs encouraging students to use it). Writing workshop volunteers weren’t allowed to give you feedback on content–they couldn’t correct factual or mathematical errors, for instance. They were just supposed to help you better convey whatever you were trying to convey.

      Many students found the workshop useful. I only used the workshop once, I think, and did recall finding it useful. I might have used it more had I been less confident in my writing. Also, the workshop had a reputation (whether deserved or not I’ve no idea) for being more useful for humanities papers than technical scientific writing.

      I’m guessing other small institutions must have something similar, though I’m sure the details vary. Not sure if anything similar exists at larger institutions?

      This raises the huge problem of how to scale up giving useful feedback on writing to large numbers of students. “Have all students attend small colleges with writing workshops, and with sufficiently small classes and sufficiently light teaching loads that profs assign lots of writing” isn’t really scalable, unfortunately. I have no good solutions and would be very interested to hear other folks’ ideas and experiences.

  2. Pingback: Independent projects in large enrollment labs? Part III: how it went and what we’d do differently | Dynamic Ecology

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