Thursday, October 25, 2012
“I can’t think of a purpose for this lab exercise.” This was a comment I received from a student this week regarding his most recent lab writeup. He’s not alone in feeling this way; the purpose of lab classes seems confined to understanding basic textbook concepts with little real-world applicability. Most students, and indeed most people, would find these exercises to be tedious and boring, yet little has been done to change the current teaching paradigm.
Now, a handful of professors have begun to rethink the concept of lab classes and design them to emphasize scientific knowledge within the framework of a real-world problem. At Colorado State University, graduate student Colin Blair and professors Dawn Rickey and Ellen Fisher have designed a lab class to teach chemistry principles through properties and applications of gold nanoparticles. Titled “Exploring Gold Nanoparticles,” the class is based upon the MORE Framework, which stands for Model, Observe, Reflect, and Explain, a teaching model developed by Rickey when she was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. In the "Exploring Gold Nanoparticles" class, students are given only basic knowledge of the lab principles beforehand and are encouraged to formulate a hypothesis of what will happen based on this and any outside knowledge they have. They then perform the experiment, reflect on the results obtained, and revise their hypotheses before progressing to the next stage of experiments, as if they were discovering principles in the field for the first time. Specifically, students learn how to synthesize gold nanoparticles, how to analyze them by atomic force microscopy, and then how to use gold naoparticles to develop a pregnancy test that can differentiate hormone levels in different human serum samples. The professors found that when taught with the MORE model, students retained information better than if they were taught using the standard lab courses. An essay describing the format and outcomes of the class recently won the Inquiry-Based Instruction Prize from Science magazine, a monthly essay contest that explores unconventional science classes for high school and college students in a variety of scientific disciplines.
Although “Discovering Gold Nanoparticles” is not the first class of its kind, classes like this remain rare seemingly due to the time required to develop them. Going through past IBI winners, a major driving force in the development of these classes seems to be a single or small handful of extremely dedicated professors or graduate students. We at the YSSD wondered whether this was due to some fundamental difficulty in applying this methodology. During a group session of only 10 minutes we found that we could come up with several labs based on-real world applications, including teaching students about genetics by observing olfaction behavior in drosophila (fruit flies), teaching students about neuroscience by looking at how electrical currents affect nerves in aplysia (sea slugs), and teaching students about geological processes through examination of different rocks and minerals. While not possible in all subjects, our session demonstrated that the applicability of inquiry-based instruction and/or the MORE framework is vast and that limitations in their development may be a lack of awareness of this novel methodology or the time required to develop a new class.
Research has demonstrated that students learn better when taught with the MORE model and other inquiry-based instruction methodologies, yet lab classes based on these are few and far between. Nevertheless, about 10% of YSSD members reported that they had personally participated in inquiry-based laboratory classes, and 100% of YSSD members said that they would have taken an inquiry-based class if it had been offered at their undergraduate institutions. Because they have the potential to so greatly improve student learning and understanding of science in the general population, development of new classes should be a priority for both professors and educational institutions.
Researchers, here is something you can do: sit down with a colleague or labmate and brainstorm for 10 minutes about how some aspect of your research could be taught using the MORE Model. Then, get in touch with your department's curriculum committee or your institution’s teaching center and see if there are others with similar interests. If you distribute the development of a new class across several professors in such a manner, the time requirement drops precipitously. As awareness of the MORE methodology and inquiry-based instruction in general increases, we will hopefully see more classes like “Discovering Gold Nanoparticles.”
2nd year, MCDB (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology)
3rd year, Chemistry