Raising the Bar in Freshman Science Education: Student Lectures, Scientific Papers, and Independent Experiments

By Collins, Eva-Maria S.; Calhoun, Tessa R. | Journal of College Science Teaching, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

Raising the Bar in Freshman Science Education: Student Lectures, Scientific Papers, and Independent Experiments


Collins, Eva-Maria S., Calhoun, Tessa R., Journal of College Science Teaching


Undergraduate freshmen can often be described as young, inexperienced, and impressionable, and it is exactly this fresh perspective that makes their education so important, especially when considering advanced courses designed to train future professional scientists. Science education on the undergraduate level has to motivate students to learn complex concepts while also guiding them to be critical thinkers with creative minds. As the classic boundaries between departments and research fields in the natural sciences have begun to crumble, the future generation of scientists will require a thoroughly interdisciplinary education to be successful and innovative in their research.

Our teaching context

The integrated science curriculum (ISC) at Princeton University is one of a few new programs designed to meet the modern challenges for educating interdisciplinary scientists by combining mathematics, physics, chemistry, and quantitative thinking with biological applications (Bialek & Botstein, 2004; DeHaan, 2005; Goldstein, Nelson, & Powers, 2005; Gross, 2004; Labov, Reid, & Yamamoto, 2010; Pevzner & Shamir, 2009). This curriculum was created in a collaborative effort of faculty from the Departments of Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Computer Science and runs in parallel to their respective undergraduate curriculum. ISC is open to all incoming freshmen (see Appendix A for a list of represented majors) and has no formal prerequisites but recommends a solid basis in calculus (at the level of AP calculus BC), high school physics, and chemistry.

The freshman level of ISC is a double course--that is, it counts as two courses each semester, consisting of both lecture and laboratory sections. In the laboratory section, students learn to perform an experiment, quantitatively analyze data in MATLAB, and communicate their results in written reports. The combination of modern experiments encompassing multiple disciplines with computational analysis makes this laboratory section an important and unique component of ISC. As pointed out by others (e.g., Feisel & Rosa, 2005; Lin & Tsai 2009; Matz, Rothman, Krajcik, & Banaszak Holl, 2012; McKee, Williamson, & Ruebush, 2007), the integration of lectures with laboratory components greatly enhances the understanding and motivation of students. The annual cost for lab maintenance (supplies, repairs) is ~$14,000. The experiments conducted last from 2 to 5 weeks each and cover a wide range of interdisciplinary topics (see Table 1). Before each lab module, students receive a handout explaining the underlying theoretical concepts, an experimental protocol, and hints for data analysis and postlab write-up. MATLAB was used throughout the course for activities ranging from basic data analysis to Monte-Carlo simulations, data visualization, and [chi square] testing. Students have ~2.5 hours/ week to carry out the experiment in pairs and 2 additional weeks to individually write a lab paper.

The ISC course is highly dynamic, and the order and content of the lab modules is frequently changed and correlated to the content of the lectures as much as possible.

The challenge

Although the course material is innovative, the previous teaching methodologies have been largely based on classic lecture and lab styles as often found in the natural sciences. In an attempt to match the new interdisciplinary content with new interactive teaching methods, we conducted a study in the laboratory part in the last 2 years (involving n = 72 students) implementing three skills that are generally not introduced until much later in a student's scientific education: (a) student-led blackboard introductions, (b) writing scientific papers instead of lab reports, and (c) designing and executing an independent lab module.

Active learning, the active engagement of students in the classroom, is not a new concept (Felder & Brent, 2009), and it has been reported elsewhere (Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010) that it increases conceptual understanding and student motivation. …

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