Developing Scientists: A Multiyear Research Experience at a Two-Year College

By Powell, Nichole L.; Harmon, Brenda B. | Journal of College Science Teaching, November-December 2014 | Go to article overview

Developing Scientists: A Multiyear Research Experience at a Two-Year College


Powell, Nichole L., Harmon, Brenda B., Journal of College Science Teaching


The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998) recommended that research-based learning should become the standard in undergraduate education, beginning as early as the freshman year. This recommendation echoes a point argued by John Dewey (1964): that learning should be based on discovery, guided by mentoring, rather than on the transmission of information. More recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities implemented the Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS) initiative aimed at improving the ability of college graduates in all fields of study to use scientific reasoning to gather and evaluate evidence and base decisions on the analysis of evidence, logic, and ethics (Riegelman & Hovland, 2012). Powerful responses to these educational challenges have used both research experiences and inquiry-based approaches to improve the scientific reasoning abilities of students as well as to increase their interest in science and scientific research (Gasper & Gardner, 2013; Jacob, 2012; Weaver et al., 2006).

Oxford College of Emory University is a small 2-year institution where fewer than 1,000 students spend their freshman and sophomore years. Science classes are limited to 24 students, and faculty teach both lecture and laboratory. Our experience teaching inquiry-based laboratories catalyzed our interest in developing a research module for our students. We sought to immerse our students in authentic research experiences that would allow them to practice the thinking skills scientists use when they approach problems and to develop the skills and attitudes that we value as scientists (Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2006). Characteristics of such an experience would be those identified in the National Science Education Standards as hallmarks of an inquiry-based education, as well as key features of scientific practice noted by Edelson: embracing the uncertainty that accompanies the pursuit of an unanswered question while also developing the level of commitment necessary for acquiring meaningful evidence (Edelson, 1998; Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000). We attempted to create a classroom/laboratory curriculum that reproduces--as much as possible--an actual undergraduate research experience; whenever possible, we mentored students toward a common goal rather than "leading" them through the complexities and inherent messiness.

Program design

With these goals in mind, we designed a program that anchored the student projects to our own research interests to provide motivation for the time commitment involved and for sustainability.

The design provides a multiyear research experience spanning the freshman and sophomore years that addresses different areas of the research question. In the second semester of the sophomore year, students enrolled in Organic Chemistry II attempt to synthesize and preliminarily characterize compounds with potential anticancer activity. Additional chemical characterization and cytoxicity testing of the compounds is performed by sophomore students engaged in an independent research experience with faculty members. General Chemistry II students evaluate compounds, including those made by the sophomores, for their DNA binding ability and relate their findings to the cytotoxicity studies. This approach allows students to work on aspects of the project at different times during their development and see the same research question from different perspectives. We target students' understanding and application of the concepts of bonding and polarity. Because the understanding of these concepts is integral to understanding both aspects of the project, students apply the same concept in different ways to gain a deeper understanding. In this way, students are able to make real, meaningful connections between general and organic chemistry, as well as biology.

FIGURE 2 Learning based on discovery, guided by mentoring. … 

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