Class Research Projects in Class Research Projects in Ecology Courses: Methods to Ecology Courses: Methods to "Un-Can" the Experience

By Rettig, Jessica E.; Smith, Geoffrey R. | Journal of College Science Teaching, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Class Research Projects in Class Research Projects in Ecology Courses: Methods to Ecology Courses: Methods to "Un-Can" the Experience


Rettig, Jessica E., Smith, Geoffrey R., Journal of College Science Teaching


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

We describe an approach to labs that provides students with more input into experimental design and implementation, while providing the instructor with simplified logistics.

Recent curricular reforms in science education have centered on increasing active learning and the "doing" of science (e.g., McNeal and D'Avanzo 1997; Cusick 2001; NRC 2003). Effective science teaching can include activities that enable students to learn how scientists think (NRC 1997), such as allowing students to test hypotheses, design experiments, or collect and interpret data. As biology curricula move to increase active learning, the focus of reforms in labs has been on increasing the use of research-like experiences (e.g., Ritchie and Rigano 1996; Harker 1999; Henderson and Buising 2001; Dimaculangan et al. 2000; Lunsford 2003). Research-like experiences range from relatively "canned" labs that are highly controlled by the instructor (such as those described in Lord and Orkwiszewski 2006) to more individualized experiences such as small-group or individually designed projects (e.g., Switzer and Shriner 2000; Wyatt 2005). However, instructors often face a logistical trade-off between providing individualized experiences (such as small-group or individually designed projects) and providing a research-project experience to an entire class. When class size is large, when there are multiple sections, or when there is limited time or resources, it is more difficult for instructors to provide students with individualized research experiences (e.g., Grant and Vatnick 1998; Johnson et al. 2006).

Here we describe a laboratory approach that allows for many of the benefits of independent or small-group student research projects, such as allowing students to design experiments, generate and test hypotheses, conduct an experiment, and collect data. However, our approach also helps overcome some of the logistical difficulties of coordinating such "free-form" student projects when there are many students enrolled in the class and helps conquer some of the pedagogical problems of canned class projects, such as lack of student engagement in the investigative process. Although we applied our approach in an undergraduate ecology course, the approach can be used in a range of disciplines when the instructor is interested in having students "do science." Our major goals for this laboratory approach were (1) to give students experience in designing and implementing ecological experiments and (2) to give students experience in collecting, analyzing, and reporting ecological data.

The course

We developed this pedagogical approach in an upper-level undergraduate course in Population and Community Ecology (class size = 24). Students in this course had completed the biology core curriculum, including a sophomore-level ecology and evolution course in which each student worked in small groups on a multiweek, self-designed research project. We have used this pedagogical approach for two iterations of the course (2005 and 2007).

The research experience

Our basic approach can be divided into five phases. We outline below how we use this method and then provide a detailed example of one research project.

Phase 1: The pre-lab

Each student was given a handout that explained the goals of the overall research experience and provided background information for each of the three experimental topics. The experimental topics included avian predation on insects, aquatic food webs, and plant competition, and were linked to areas of ecology covered in the lecture portion of the class: predator-prey dynamics, direct and indirect effects in food webs, and competition within and between species. For each topic, background information included abstracts from two recent primary research articles and a list of variables or species that students might decide to manipulate. We asked students to read the information before lab, design an experiment for each topic, and come to lab prepared to present their design ideas to their peers. …

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