research and teaching
Building Science Skills and Creating Community
By Christina Cianfrani, Sarah Hews, and Christene DeJong
The learning sciences have contributed a great deal to our understanding of the brain and the processes that occur during learning and growth (e.g. Brown et al., 2014; Eyler, 2018; Lang, 2016; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010). Educators are increasingly using this information in the design of curricula, courses, and activities to help achieve desired educational learning outcomes. Eyler (2018) specifically discusses curiosity, authenticity, and failure as important components in human learning. These elements are inherent in the study of science and yet are not always incorporated in science curricula that have traditionally focused more on content delivery and laboratory experiments with predetermined outcomes designed to teach technical skills.
Inquiry-based science courses (Weaver et al., 2008) and undergraduate student research experiences offer a model of science education designed to include elements that capitalize on student interest and their inherent curiosity. Undergraduate research experiences are considered high-impact practices (Kuh, 2008) that engage students with current research questions, create an authentic scientific experience, and provide the opportunity for students to apply their learning in a practical and meaningful way. These experiences have historically included research apprenticeships, summer internships, honors theses, and research embedded within courses. They have been shown to impact students’ understanding of the nature and process of science (Hunter et al., 2007; Ryder & Leach, 1999; Sadler et al., 2010; Schwartz et al., 2004), their technical skills (Sadler et al., 2010), and their socialization within the scientific community (Gardner et al., 2015; Lopatto, 2007; Russell et al., 2007; Schneider et al., 2015; Seymour et al., 2004).
Traditionally, research experiences have been available to advanced students and those who are already highly motivated and skilled. Many undergraduate STEM majors provide thesis opportunities only for honors students, and summer research experiences are highly selective and require evidence of strong academic performance in STEM classes. Capstone projects and course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) (Auchincloss et al., 2014) are increasing in popularity and attempt to “democratize” research experiences by providing access to a broader range of students, although often as a singular experience using faculty-driven research projects (Shanahan et al., 2017). Many studies are emerging about CUREs and their design and effectiveness (Auchincloss et al., 2014; Ballen et al., 2017; Corwin et al., 2018a; Corwin et al., 2018b; Corwin et al., 2015) to identify the significant design elements and their impacts on student learning.
At our small liberal arts institution, all students are required to design their concentration/major and complete a self-driven senior capstone thesis that often includes original research. This approach often differs significantly from students’ high school preparation. To help students with the transition into college and to better prepare them for capstone experiences and postgraduate work, we used a backward design approach (Cooper et al., 2017) to develop the Integrated Sciences First-Year Program (ISFP). Motivated by the learning sciences literature that emphasizes the importance of curiosity, authenticity, and failure (e.g., Eyler, 2018; Harsh et al., 2011), we designed curricular elements within ISFP to achieve three specific goals for our students: (1) to develop a deeper understanding of the nature and process of science; (2) to develop science skills; and (3) to build community. This program provides students the opportunity to use their interests and strengths (i.e., assets-based approach; see discussion in Eloff & Ebersohn, 2001; Kretzman & McKnight, 1993; Schreiner & Anderson, 2013; Stoddard & Pfeifer, 2018; Svihla et al., 2017) to design research projects, and to take academic risks within a scaffolded and supported environment while experiencing both failure and success when the stakes are low. This program contains many elements similar to undergraduate research experiences and course-based undergraduate research experiences. Although they were designed with different goals, both may offer additional insights for the emerging literature on these educational practices.
The ISFP consists of three parts: a first semester collaborative interdisciplinary course experience (ISFP-I), a second semester projects-based research course (ISFP-II), and a summer undergraduate research experience (ISFP-III) (Figure 1). For many students, ISFP-I provides experience with research and inquiry that prepares them for student-driven research projects during ISFP-II and ISFP-III. We described ISFP-I in detail in Cianfrani and Hews (2020). This article describes the methods we used to assess our three goals for ISFP-II and ISFP-III, our results in achieving these goals, and additional themes that emerged from the data during the pilot years: 2015–2018. We also include a discussion that describes the major curricular elements and how they might be applied in different contexts and scales.
Twenty-three students participated in ISFP-II over the three pilot years with an average of seven students per year. Two faculty members rotated as lead instructor, and class met for three hours per week. During the first six weeks, students identified research questions and wrote and revised a research proposal including extensive peer review. Students chose whether to extend a theme from ISFP-I or identify a completely new project. During the next six weeks, students conducted their research projects. Depending on the project, students sought outside expertise (faculty, staff, and other professionals), located or purchased materials, built sampling equipment, set up computer models, and/or completed field work. While each student worked on an individual project, the group met to refine and troubleshoot methods, help each other with data collection and analysis, and hone presentation skills. During the last two weeks of the semester, students synthesized their work in research posters and presented them to the class and interested community members. Students reflected on their progress and their experience with the scientific process weekly during class meetings, and they completed formal written reflections/self-evaluations at the end of the class.
We designed ISFP-III as a four-week summer research intensive and required a brief application and preliminary interview. Any student within the college could apply to ISFP-III with preference given to students who had completed ISFP-I or ISFP-II and/or first-year students. Motivation and interest for project work was prioritized over strength of transcripts or science preparation. A total of 17 students completed the summer program during the pilot years with an average of five or six students per year. Teaching assistants (TAs, one or two per year) were recruited from past ISFP cohorts. Students received a stipend and room and board for the program. Expenses were also covered for attendance at the American Ecological Engineering Society (AEES) Annual Conference (various locations) for all ISFP-III students and TAs. Two faculty members were paid a teaching stipend for their time. An internal grant provided funding for the program during the pilot years.
During the residency period, students attended daily group lab meetings, worked on their research projects, met with guest faculty and staff for skill development workshops, attended lunchtime seminars with faculty and outside professionals, and prepared a research poster (national conference) and research presentation (peers, faculty mentors, local community members). Formal time was spent learning how to present scientific research and preparing for attendance at the conference (i.e., what to expect, how to get the most out of it, etc.). At the research conference students also took part in the student design challenge. These activities enabled the students to learn while “doing science,” but faculty also led discussions on how scientific knowledge is created and used within a context.
We developed a research and evaluation protocol to determine whether our stated goals for ISFP-II and ISFP-III were achieved and to explore any unanticipated learning outcomes for students. To allow us to evaluate students’ skills, abilities, and understandings, as well as students’ inner experiences and meaning making, we leveraged official faculty narrative course evaluations of student performance (ISFP-II), faculty descriptive observations (ISFP-III), and in-depth. semi-structured interviews with students as our primary data sources (ISFP-II and ISFP-III).
As ISFP-II was a formalized course within the science curriculum for which students received the equivalent of course credit, faculty wrote summative narrative evaluations (in lieu of grades per college policy) for each student, detailing their progress and skill development over the semester. Formal, narrative evaluations were not written for the ISFP-III summer program, however, assessments for each student were completed and feedback was given during “exit interviews” to students based on observations by faculty and TAs throughout the program. We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with each cohort and again in Fall of 2018 with former ISFP students in either their third or final year at the college. In total, we collected 31 interviews with 17 participants (five postISFP-III in year 1, seven postISFP-II in year 2, six postISFP-III in year 2, five postISFP-III in year 3, and six third- and fourth-year follow-ups in year 3). Interviews were audio recorded and independently transcripted and analytic memos were drafted after each interview.
Faculty course evaluations, faculty observations, and interview transcripts were uploaded into QSR NVivo 12 qualitative data analysis software. Using an integrated approach, with deductive themes stemming from our predetermined goals and inductive themes emerging from the data itself, one researcher, not involved in teaching the program, developed an initial coding scheme and drafted analytic memos that were discussed with the other researchers, the faculty members teaching the program (Saldaña, 2016). Secondary coding further refined themes through axial coding, the process of relating codes to each other inductively and deductively, and selective coding, the process of whittling down to core concepts (Kolb, 2012). Themes were triangulated across all of the data sources (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). All of the researchers had regular meetings to discuss the coding and analysis and to check findings against program goals and objectives.
College Institutional Review Board approval was received to conduct all research and analysis.
Analysis of our course evaluations and interview data revealed that students successfully achieved program goals. For each program goal, we identified several key themes using inductive and deductive approaches that delineated what students learned within that goal’s domain (see Tables 1–3).
|Student quotes (including source of data) addressing ISFP-II and ISFP-III course goal for “developing science skills.”|
|Student quotes (including source of data) addressing ISFP-II and ISFP-III course goal for “deeper understanding of nature and process of science.”|
|Student quotes (including source of data) addressing ISFP-II and ISFP-III course goal for “building community.”|
We identified four key themes from our data analysis that detail the particular understandings within the nature and process of science that students’ developed: (1) science as creative; (2) science as subjective; (3) scientific inquiry as nonlinear; and (4) scientific process as messy and iterative (see Table 1). Our interview data demonstrated that through ISFP-II and ISFP-III, students learned how much creativity, flexibility, and patience scientific research requires and experienced the fun and sense of wonder the process can instill. As students pursued their own projects and looked for answers from faculty, who were themselves learning about the topics, they began to understand the subjectivity of scientific exploration. This experience working on projects with unknown outcomes contrasted significantly from many students’ previous experiences in science with one student commenting: [What was the most valuable part was just] how much of an iterative process it is … here’s my initial idea and then I have to make a new idea because everything on this one broke or isn’t working. I think that was definitely the most important part of doing real experimental science as opposed to just doing it in normal lab classes where you have all the experimental set up and you just follow through and you get exactly what you should get.
Students described how their projects failed, took longer than anticipated, required multiple iterations and variations, and how much fun they had figuring it all out. Students described coming into a new and more exciting understanding of scientific inquiry and the scientific process.
We identified two key themes from our data analysis that supported students’ achievement in skill development: (1) gaining competencies; and (2) identification of additional skills needed (see Table 2). Several sources of data, including interviews, faculty ISFP-II course evaluations, and faculty observations of ISFP-III students’ poster presentations and conference interactions (with other faculty, graduate students, and industry professionals), provided strong evidence that students gained competencies across many science skills. Students remarked on their increased knowledge of research design and confidence in engaging in it and producing required materials, such as pointed research questions and grant proposals. Faculty course evaluations noted the field and lab skills that students honed through ISFP-II and ISFP-III, while faculty observations showed students’ high levels of confidence in discussing their projects and ability to knowledgably answer audience questions at the scientific conference.
In addition to our main data sources, outside confirmation of skill development was received when the 2016 ISFP-III cohort won first place in the 2016 AEES National Conference student design challenge, despite being the only undergraduate team. They cited skills learned throughout their ISFP experience including critical thinking, the ability to identify outside sources of information, and working collaboratively as contributing to their success.
Students also identified gaps in their knowledge and science skills they wanted to learn. As students pursued their research questions and conducted experiments and analysis, they recognized the importance and relevance of skills and content knowledge they did not have in fields such as statistics, calculus, modeling, forest ecology, etc. For example, one student noted: “[We were doing] some data analysis with stats and I was like, I don’t know what any of this means, clearly I need to take a stats class now.”
Students began to seek out online resources, faculty members, content experts, textbooks, primary and secondary literature, etc. and to register in future semesters for content specific courses. They were motivated by their research questions and began building a conceptual map of how different skills fit together and why they are useful.
We identified three key themes of community that students experienced: (1) strong network of mentors; (2) intellectual community on campus; and (3) sense of self as scientist (see Table 3). While students worked closely with faculty and a TA in ISFP-II, they experienced even closer mentorship in ISFP-III. During the summer program, students felt deeply supported by ISFP faculty, other science faculty, TAs, and peers in their cohort. Specifically, students described how the professors set clear expectations for the research process, offered continual encouragement and enthusiasm, helped them through collegial collaboration, asked probing questions, and offered resources. Students were also supported by other science faculty who would join meetings to share their expertise and offer guidance. As former ISFP students, TAs helped students calibrate their expectations, undertake the logistics of their projects, analyze data, and create social community, all while modeling possible pathways for pursuing science at the college. Peer-to-peer support also constituted a key site of mentorship for students. Students worked on each other’s projects, offered physical and intellectual help, and created a culture of motivation and support. Together, this network of mentors fostered a sense of intellectual community for the students within the college and among scientists.
Finally, students developed an identity of being a scientist within the larger scientific community. In particular, students cited participation in the AEES National Conference with supporting this identity as scientists: “It’s like, wow, we’re not doing anything that’s super far off from that…Of course I didn’t understand [it all] but some of it [I thought], okay, we’re doing something kind of similar to that…It was just cool to get that exposure as a first year.”
This enabled students to see themselves as part of the scientific community in the present rather than in their distant futures.
Through ISFP-II and ISFP-III, students gained a rich understanding of the nature and process of science, developed key science skills, and became part of the scientific community at the college and beyond early in their college careers. Our analysis suggests that three curricular elements helped foster this growth for students: (1) completing original student-driven scientific projects; (2) formal and informal interactions with mentors; and (3) engagement with a larger scientific community.
By asking and pursuing their own research questions and reflecting on the experience, first-year students dove into original scientific research in tangible and meaningful ways. For many this was their first college science experience and so they had to draw on problem-solving skills, previous experiences, and creativity in lieu of extensive foundational knowledge. Engaging in a project of their own design revealed to students the deeper complexities and challenges inherent in authentic scientific research. Our findings support the claims made by others that students perceive learning gains in themselves and benefit from having to think scientifically (Harsh et al., 2011; Hunter et al., 2007; Seymour et al., 2004). They put their plans into practice, took risks, and dealt with failures. Such insight cultivated a more realistic sense of how scientists develop scientific understanding over time within a context of tentativeness and uncertainty.
Students participated in each step in the research process, including literature reviews, proposal writing and grant submission, experimentation, lab procedures, data collection and analysis, and the presentation of results. Doing so fostered both an understanding of the scientific process and a nascent mastery of those skills, benefits often not seen for students who complete research as part of an existing research project (Linn et al., 2015). Students had to build on skills they had and develop new skills. Our students showed similar gains in confidence to what others have reported (Kardash, 2000; Lopatto, 2004, 2007; Sadler & McKinney, 2010; Seymour et al., 2004). For example, most students had no prior experience writing research proposals. Completing proposals during ISFP-II in a structured course setting with instructor and peer feedback enabled them to develop and practice these skills.
Through the student-driven projects students also learned what they did not know. Students ran into challenges with experimental design, data collecting, data analysis, and so on, and in doing so, realized that it was important for them to use their undergraduate experience to fill in the gaps in their understanding. It inspired and excited them to take courses that they were previously feeling apprehensive about (e.g., organic chemistry, calculus). Students shared in follow-up interviews that when taking these courses later in their undergraduate career, they drew upon the research questions they had developed during their first-year experience and created connections among content in different courses. The conceptual framework they developed in ISFP-II and ISFP-III continued to motivate them afterward. As others have found, this provides evidence of the importance of early opportunities for engagement in research experiences in shaping students’ long-term educational pathways (Harsh et al., 2011; Linn et al., 2015; Sadler & McKinney, 2010; Schneider et al., 2015).
While we designed an entire course centered on student-driven projects, such experiences could be incorporated into existing classes, precollege programs, and as modules with many of the same benefits. For example, students could design and complete a lab experiment covering one of the main topics within a course. Students could also gain practice designing their own projects as part of research proposals for grant funding to be submitted on-campus or within a course competition. Students may also be introduced to research before they arrive on campus through precollege programs (e.g., Gardner et al., 2015). The key element is to provide opportunities for students to identify questions and support them in the inquiry process.
Packard (2016) describes the importance of creating “intentional” mentoring strategies and networks of mentors in attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines. ISFP-II created frequent, formal interactions with faculty, but the intensity of ISFP-III and the opportunities it created for multiple and varied formal and informal interactions led to particularly deep mentorship across the scientific community on and off campus.
Formal interactions were primarily academically focused. Students consistently mentioned the importance of the ISFP-III daily lab meeting for brainstorming, troubleshooting, and sharing challenges. These findings support conclusions drawn by others about the importance of strong mentoring and peer support throughout the research experience (Feldman et al., 2013; Gardner et al., 2015; Linn et al., 2015; Lopatto, 2007). These meetings scaffolded students’ independent work and gave them consistent access to resources and support. Skill workshops not only taught students important skills that they needed, but also introduced students to different faculty and staff in the school and provided an opportunity for the faculty to engage with students on their projects.
Informal interactions were wide ranging and occurred frequently. Faculty from across the campus and other professionals in the community were invited to have lunch with the students. This created an informal time for students, TAs, and faculty/professionals to get to know each other. The conversations included detailed discussions about research projects as well as casual conversations about other interests. Students engaged in planned and unplanned social activities, including getting ice cream, swimming in the lake, and playing frisbee with faculty, TAs, and each other.
Developing such networks of mentors can be done formally and informally and in both big and small ways. Schneider et al. (2015) describe the creation of a living-learning community for first-year students to develop such a supportive network. We focused on creating a wide variety of possible mentors for students rather than a one-to-one model. Institutions and departments could provide opportunities for early career students to meet professors, staff, and TAs/graduate students through laboratory visits and guest lectures. Seminar series could be used intentionally to foster relationships among faculty and students with different experiences. Finally, specific training for TAs could help support them in building mentoring capacity.
At the AEES national conference, students saw how “real” scientists, including graduate students and professors, were engaged in pursuits similar to their own, a perspective that disrupted preconceived notions of who does science and how science gets done. This exposure fostered a new conceptualization of themselves as scientists and not simply science students.
In particular, the preconference planning and attendance at the conference provided an opportunity for students to learn all of the etiquette and norms for a professional environment, gave them the experience of presenting their work in poster form and receiving constructive feedback, and was an environment for students to engage with professional scientists. They were brought into a community of practice in a significant and authentic way, which has been found to be important in helping students think of themselves as scientists (Hunter et al., 2007). As others have found, after the conference our students had increased confidence in navigating the scientific community and felt a sense of belonging within it (Hunter et al., 2007; Russell et al., 2007; Seymour et al., 2004).
While attending the small national scientific conference proved a valuable experience, it required significant resources. There are many ways students could obtain the benefits without having to travel, including local conferences that focus on students at little or no cost. Colleges and universities (or even departments) could host on-campus conferences with an interdisciplinary focus. Student design challenges (e.g., hack-a-thons) provide students an opportunity to work together to solve problems and could take place either within or outside of courses. Finally, finding opportunities to connect with professionals outside the classroom provides important benefits and expands the mentor network. Our work with college physical plant and facilities staff created excellent opportunities for our students.
We designed the ISFP to introduce students to the nature and process of science early in their academic career, help them develop skills and competencies, and create an intellectual community of learners to foster belonging within the scientific community. Using their inherent curiosity, we designed active learning environments where students had enough scaffolding to guide their efforts, but enough freedom to engage in authentic research and experience both success and failure while taking academic risks. We found that student-driven projects, formal and informal mentoring experiences, and engagement with a larger scientific community constituted the key parts of the program. While we implemented the ISFP as a three-part series, the lessons we learned are widely applicable and can be applied to individual courses and as well as within courses across the science curriculum.
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