Experience Being a Scientist The goal that I have for all of my students is for them to come away with not only a set of core scientific knowledge, but to see themselves as investigators capable of asking questions and actively adding new information to our understanding of the world. In order for students to become investigators, I include deliberate exercises to develop the skills scientists use. For example, the first step when starting a new investigation is searching, reading, and understanding primary literature. However, each of these steps takes specific knowledge and skill. One of the first exercises that I’ve included in my classes is to read a paper together and discuss how to read a paper: what order should the sections get read in, what does the title mean, why do scientists communicate this way? The class also reads some very poorly written papers and identifies the errors: is it sentence structure, what information is missing, what do the figures actually show? This exercise is repeated through out the semester with students taking more of a lead in selecting and leading the paper discussions. Writing assignments and verbal presentations in the course then reinforce these skills.
For several reasons, I include the classic experiments that lead to advances in knowledge. First, students become accustomed to interpreting experimental data and drawing their own conclusions from it. This also reinforces the concept that scientific knowledge is always open to questioning and that changes in understanding come in incremental steps, not eureka moments out of the blue. Along with the experimental data, I also present biographical details of the scientists who preformed the experiments, connecting to the human side of science. Science does not take place in a vacuum void of emotions, personalities, political pressures, or ethical implications and discussing these issues is as important as the content. Including biographies of scientists also allows students see the diversity of ‘what a scientist looks like’. Written and Verbal Communication Another essential skill for scientists is to be able to effectively communicate the knowledge gained from an investigation to a variety of audiences. Hence, I have built into courses ways for students to practice communicating their findings to both a scientific audience and a non-scientific audience, in both written and verbal formats. One strategy that has been particularly effective with students in foundation courses has been for the students to meet with the instructor to get specific feedback on a draft of a paper and talk through what goes into the different sections of the paper. This activity alone has significantly improved the quality and grades of lab reports in this course. (Instructors in upper-level course have noticed this improvement, too.) In my upper-level courses, I have students practice the discipline-specific writing of formal lab reports and research proposals, but also present these findings as verbal and poster presentations. I include instruction on clear and concise writing, followed by ‘revising’ a literature paper with the guidelines that we’ve discussed. Commonly students comment on how much easier scientific writing is once they know some of the ‘rules’. All of these assignments involve opportunity for revision after feedback from the instructor. My upper-level courses also practice writing summaries targeted for a non-scientific audience along with discussing how communicating with a general audience is different.
Original Student Research Stereotypically, scientists are thought of being loners, toiling away in a lab (characteristically with crazy hair and an explosion!). However, modern research is a collaborative endeavor that requires cooperation, communication, and delegation. For this reason, I arrange my classes and research lab into research teams. Each team member is required to be involved in the development and design of the experiment, but then each is responsible for executing their share of the experiment. The team then works together to analyze the data, form conclusions, and propose additional experiments. The final step is the communication of these results, both individually and as a team.
Preforming original research allows students to pursue curiosity, push the frontiers of knowledge, and challenge their problem solving skills. For me, I find this both challenging and exhilarating. However, I hear from students that the most challenging part of research is the frustration from the high percentage of ‘failed’ experiments. I use these moments as an opportunity for an open conversation, “Yes, the experiment didn’t give us the results as expected, but do the controls tell us where the experiment went wrong?” And “An experimental failure is different than a personal failure.” I also stress that the student is the most valued part of the experiment; chemicals can be reordered, plasmids remade, and equipment can be repaired but they are the driving force behind an experiment. I find this process of mentoring students into scientific peers quite fulfilling. Non-Major Courses Overall, my learning goals for non-science majors are the same as that for a first-year science course: (1) being able to rationalize how scientists ask questions, the scientific process works, and the ethical conventions that govern science, (2) demonstrate the use of some basic chemical and biological concepts, and (3) being able to execute some fundamental lab skills. However, my approach is quite different as non-science majors are more varied in their prior knowledge and interests, but they also brought amazing curiosity, creativity, and diverse points of views. Recognizing this, I allowed students to present topics that were of interest to them. For example, one student was concerned about the dumping of chemical/nuclear waste on Native American lands. She gave a very well informed presentation on both the sources and toxicity of the waste as well as led a class discussion on the socio-economic aspects of the issue. I would also welcome the opportunity to teaching in First-Term Seminars and general education program