Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

An Introduction to Biological Research Course for Undergraduate Biology Students

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

An Introduction to Biological Research Course for Undergraduate Biology Students

Article excerpt

A great deal of research-based evidence has led to a growing trend of transitioning from traditional lecture to active learning in university-level science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses (Freeman et al., 2014; Gormally, Brickman, Hallar, & Armstrong, 2009). There are many active learning strategies that can be implemented in STEM classrooms, the most authentic being undergraduate research experiences (Lopatto, 2007). Such experiences have been shown to be extremely beneficial to undergraduates. Although research experiences are the most authentic and beneficial, it has been suggested that participation in another type of course might be beneficial to undergraduates prior to participating in an undergraduate research experience. The National Academy of Sciences suggests an introductory course on reviewing scientific literature as a precursor to a research experience (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). These are courses in which students read the primary scientific literature, discuss it, and write scientifically (Brownell, Price, & Steinman, 2013). Such courses are ways for students to develop key skills in reading scientific literature and communicating about science early in their career. Students are thereby better prepared to enter into an undergraduate research experience, understanding their participation in context. Courses of this nature have also been shown to help facilitate student transitions into a graduate program (Kozeracki, Carey, Colicelli, & Levis-Fitzgerald, 2006).

An introductory course on reviewing scientific literature can be designed in many ways. Such courses have been implemented at various universities with success (Brownell et al., 2013; Carter & Wiles, 2017; Colabroy, 2011; Gottesman & Hoskins, 2013; Halbisen & Ralston, 2017; Hoskins, Stevens, & Nehm, 2007; Sandefur & Gordy, 2016). Although they all include practice in reading and writing scientifically, they differ in other ways. Brownell et al. (2013) designed such a course, but also included practice in different types of science writing (e.g., writing for the nonscientist public in New York Times style). Sandefur and Gordy (2016) designed their course as a journal club rather than a seminar style course. Hsu, Wrona, Brownell, and Khalfan (2016) implemented a course that was led by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Each of these courses was intended to help improve students' science literacy and communication skills, but each successfully approached these goals in different ways.

On the basis of the experiences of other researchers and educators described in prior literature, we designed a seminar-style course for first-year biology students that engaged them in the reading of primary research articles. We incorporated writing assignments and class discussions to help improve students' abilities in writing about and otherwise communicating science to others--critical skills for scientists. Unlike most courses described in prior literature, we also incorporated student interaction with the scientists who performed the research to foster a better understanding of what biological research actually entails. This addition also serves to introduce students to active research programs at our university so that, should they become interested, they will be better informed about the breadth of opportunities available and better able to identify a faculty mentor for a research experience that closely matches their interests.

Our course and students

This course, titled Introduction to Biological Research, was a seminar-style course designed for no more than 15 students per section, which mirrors the format of upper division seminar courses in our department. It was offered during the spring semester at a large, research intensive university in the northeastern United States. The first author of this article, a PhD candidate in biology, was the instructor for the course under the supervision of the second author, a faculty member in the same department. …

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