In 2015-16, Cheryl Stover and were part of the 3rd cohort of Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE) fellows. We attended a 3-day workshop and began planning a project to help our students develop more of the competencies from Vision and Change, a report that AAAS and NSF put out in 2011 recommending national changes for undergraduate biology education.
Vision and Change was an effort to develop a shared vision among the biology community around undergraduate biology education. It lists core concepts and competencies that all students should develop. Groups like PULSE, NWBIO, the NW Biosciences Consortium, and similar organizations in other regions of the country are working to infuse this shared vision into their departments and integrate the core concepts and competencies into their classes and programs.
We believe that the natural sciences courses at RTC do a great job focusing on the core concepts of Vision and Change, but are less focused on helping students with the core competencies. Therefore, we decided to develop a new lab curriculum for Biol 160 with a focus on student-designed experiments. The major competencies from Vision and Change that we are focusing on are:
- ABILITY TO APPLY THE PROCESS OF SCIENCE: Biology is evidence based and grounded in the formal practices of observation, experimentation, and hypothesis testing.
- ABILITY TO USE QUANTITATIVE REASONING: Biology relies on applications of quantitative analysis and mathematical reasoning.
Our first challenge was choosing a suitable study organism. We investigated a number of options and ultimately went with the beetle, Callosobruchus maculatus, because it is inexpensive and easy to raise in the lab, students can observe its movement and behavior, and others have published useful materials and lab protocols related to its use in undergraduate biology on the website beanbeetles.org. We developed a loose weekly plan and presented it at the NWBio annual meeting in April 2016.
In Fall 2016, I piloted the new lab curriculum in my face to face Biol 160 class. The major elements of the lab were:
Student lab notebooks – each week, I provided some guidance about what students were expected to write in their lab notebook before lab. They came in with background information and methods for the lab, made modifications as necessary during lab, and collected and analyzed their data to draw conclusions during lab. I checked the notebooks superficially every week and in more detail at two scheduled lab notebook checks. Here is some of the reference information:
- How to Do a Lab Notebook instruction page for students
- Self-check for students prior to Notebook Check #1
Guided Inquiry – at the beginning of the quarter, I wanted to give the students more guidance and scaffolding. We started off by researching and observing our study organisms, the bean beetles, using compound and dissecting microscopes. Then I asked students to design an experiment to determine whether female beetles prefer to lay their eggs on certain types of beans. I told them which materials would be available and that we were testing oviposition preference in female beetles, but they got to choose whether they wanted to test for a preference in bean size, color, species, etc., choose how to set up their experimental groups, and determine what results to measure. Here are the instructions I provided:
- Lab 1 – observing beetle anatomical structures with microscopes
- Lab 2 – determining bean host preference in bean beetles
- Here are some sample pages from lab notebooks that students created for these two labs (click thumbnails to enlarge images).
Open Inquiry – next, the 6 student groups worked together to come up with their own scientific question and design a multiple week experiment to test it. We spent one lab period focused on experimental design, and each group presented their proposed design to the class to get feedback. I asked each group to give me a list of materials they needed for their experiment, and let them know which ones I could realistically obtain. Students had 4 lab periods in which to set up and perform their experiments, measure results, and work on their final posters. Most groups did experiments that spanned a generation of beetles, setting up an experiment with adult beetles the first week and measuring data on hatched offspring during the last week or two. In the interim, many groups cracked open a few beans to monitor larval development. I used funding from Bellevue College’s ComGen grant to get the student posters professionally printed. We held a poster session in the Learning Resource Center during class time on 12/2/16 and I invited all college employees to attend via e-mail. We got a pretty good turnout despite the early hour, and the students got to meet faculty and administrators from programs that many of them were interested in. I heard quite a few students comment that they’d never done anything like this poster session and that this communication piece made research much more real and interesting to them. Mark White from marketing attended and wrote our poster session up in The Wire.