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Pre-SoTL Institute

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Daron Barnard

Worcester State College, Worcester, MA

Assignment #1: Introductions

1) Describe your teaching responsibilities and the type of student you

I am in my second year as an Assistant Professor at Worcester State College in Massachusetts (pronounced "Wooster" or if you are from Massachusetts "Wosta").We have a diverse student body in both background and academic ability. Many of them commute and work full time as well. In addition, many of out students are first generation college students or are nontraditional students.

Currently my teaching responsibilities mainly focus on undergraduate Biology and Biotechnology majors.A large portion of my teaching each semester is a 200 level Genetics course.I also teach an upper level Developmental Biology, a capstone Biology Seminar course and Introduction to Biology II: Cellular and Molecular Biology.Other past teaching responsibilities have included a 200 level Cell Biology, a Genomic graduate level class with Biotechnology master’s level students, and a now defunct course for biology majors and non-majors called Introduction to Biology I.

2) Describe what you would like to take home as a result of attending
the institute

One of my hopes for the SoTL Institute is to learn how to approach the assessment of my teaching in a more systematic way.I am in the process of trying to switch some of the labs (Genetics and Development) into more project based labs and want to learn how to assess student learning as I make these changes.

3) Tell us about your interests outside of the classroom and a book that
you've read recently

Out of the classroom, my family (wife, and two children - almost 5 and 2.5) and I try to spend as much time together as possible, and we particularly enjoy outdoor activities.I also try to go running when I can, and do some woodworking and gardening.A book that I am currently reading is What is the What - by Dave Eggers about one of the lost boys of Sudan.Of course it is taking me a while to get through (I am hindered by the fact that during the semester I have a tendency to pick up books that require no mental effort - books Bethany so aptly described as "mind junk").

Assignment #2: Reflections

1) How would you describe your “research problem(s)” to the Research Scholars group?

My teaching and learning research problem focuses on the laboratory portions of courses.  One of the obstacles that I encounter in genetics is a fear of the subject and subsequently, student disengagement.  The more traditional approach to the lab gives breadth, yet the students lack investment in the lab learning experience.  I am interested in researching the effectiveness of longer projects that involve actual research projects as a way to increase student involvement with the subject, and ultimately student learning.  While I believe that the problem could be extended into just about any course that I teach, I plan to concentrate on genetics lab, as genetics represents the bulk of my teaching load.  In this course I have a project that extends for several labs, and traditionally this has been a classical genetics experiment (Drosophila crosses).  The benefit(s) of a project-based lab could be a scholarship of teaching and learning research problem in and of itself; however, I would like to address the question of whether student learning and engagement is enhanced by integration of an actual research project into such a lab.  A related problem that I am interested in is: would computer simulations be an effective substitute for classical genetic crosses, thus leaving greater time to explore modern topics in a project-based format?

2)What theme(s) based on your readings, resonate with your “problem” and/or your proposed approach to address your problem?

One on the themes from the readings that that I feel resonates with my problem is the very basic question of needing to discover how the students come to understand genetics.  Randy Bass incorporates a quote into his article, from Diana Laurillard, that emphasizes the need for analytical evaluation of our teaching.  I found the following statement from that quote particularly relevant:
“Teachers need to know more than just their subject.  They need to know the ways it can come to be understood, the ways that it can be misunderstood, what counts as understanding: they need to know how individuals experience the subject.”
This problem of how can the students best come to understand the material underlies many of my questions regarding the nature of lab exercises and how they contribute to learning and an understanding of the subject.   

I also think that, as Bass pointed out, the issue of assessing prior knowledge will be important.  I have students in my genetics course that have taken only Intro Bio, and others for whom genetics is the last class needed for graduation.  Is the understanding that I observe due to learning that has taken place during the semester or is it a result of prior knowledge?  One concern that I have is how to integrate the assessment of prior knowledge into the assessment of overall learning (and how to get this approved by our HSRB).

3) Which of the 12 properties of SoTL in microbiology education proposed by S. Benson’s article are particularly relevant to your project at this stage?

Of the 12 properties that Spencer Benson proposed in his article I feel that Property #1 (reflective analysis), Property #8 (problem centric), and Property #10 (practical engagement in teaching) are relevant to my project.  In my mind these properties are important in framing the question or problem.  Additionally, the very act of writing and posting these reflections makes Property #7 (public at all stages) a significant aspect of the project.  

4) Do you have any questions/concerns/comments that have evolved from your reading?

My major concern has to do with ways to provide appropriate controls for this research. One specific example of this is how to control for prior knowledge as I alluded to above, yet still maintain anonymity.

5) What do you see as tangible products to be developed as a result of your Scholars experience within the next 12 months?

Over the next 12 months I intend to come up with a strategy for the incorporation of a research project into genetics lab and the assessment of student learning.  

6) What do you see yourself presenting at the follow-up session at ASMCUE 2009?

It is my goal to initiate the research during the year and plan to present initial results at ASMCUE in 2009.

7) What will you need to develop these products?

Assignment #3: Annotations

In my project I want to investigate the effectiveness of longer project-based laboratory exercises that involve actual research projects as a way to increase student involvement with the subject, and ultimately student learning.  I will be particularly focusing on this problem in the lab of my 200-level genetics course.  

For my references I searched mainly for resources that described courses in which a research component was integrated into the lab instead of the “traditional” lab exercises.  Most of what I encountered was journal articles, and I had limited success finding either posters or portfolios that were relevant to my project.   I did enjoy looking at these resources, but the references that I found most useful came from searching ERIC, PubMed, or looking in specific biological journals that have educational sections or focus on education.

  1. Sleister, H. M. (2007). Isolation and characterization of Saccharomyces cerevisiae mutants defective in chromosome transmission in an undergraduate genetics research course.  Genetics 177, 677-688.

In this article, Sleister describes an upper level genetics research course designed to give students a “real” research experience. The project covered both classical and molecular genetics activities, providing a broad exposure to different areas of genetics even thought the project was limited to a single model organism.  Assessment demonstrated that when compared to a traditional lab experience, students felt that the research lab experience had: “helped them better understand genetic concepts and methods”, “helped them make connections between different concepts/experiments”, and that the “technical skills are/will be valuable in further studies…or in a future career”.  Sleister makes the point that in both types of labs the students would learn “how to perform [a] method” but in the research lab the students “gain first-hand experience with the when and why to apply a particular method”.  One aspect of the article that I really like is a table she provides that lists the major course objectives and ties each objective to a specific activity or assignment that is part of the research project.  While this article describes a research project carried out in an upper-level course (the course has a prerequisite of an introductory genetics course), it has many similarities to what I would like to do in my genetics course.

  1. Stiller, J. W., and Coggins, T. C. (2006). Teaching Molecular Biological Techniques in a Research Content. American Biology Teacher 68, 36-42.

This article describes a semester long project in a research context that uses many of the molecular biology techniques common in research.  The authors address the benefit of such an approach as it is hypothesis driven and connects the techniques to the reason for their use and the “assumptions implicit in their use”.  The authors also indicate that the techniques can be coupled or “strung together” leading to an understanding of how the techniques might be used to solve a problem. They discuss the benefits of unexpected results, which are often lacking in the “canned” laboratory exercises, as either thought provoking or in need of trouble-shooting. The article thoroughly describes the steps involved in the project that the authors used in their project.  Of particular interest is the indication that this project was interspersed with “traditional labs” during the lulls in project activity.  The article addresses many of the advantages that I hope that a research-based lab would present to the students.

  1. Chaplin, S. B., Manske, J. M., and Cruise, J. L. (1998). Introducing Freshmen To Investigative Research--A Course for Biology Majors at Minnesota's University of St. Thomas. Journal of College Science Teaching 27, 347-350.

This article describes a research course directed at first to second year biology students. The authors reiterate some of the benefits of students participating in research (as attributed to an article by J.R. Brandenberger – a reference I have been unable to locate) and address the importance of learning by doing.  They note that cookbook labs teach techniques but students do not learn the process of science through these exercises.  The article also points to the misconception that research is only something in which the top students are able to participate; the authors’ class suggests otherwise.  This is an argument that I think is important for the incorporation of research in my genetics class, as well as my overall philosophy of teaching and learning.  Results indicate that students that complete the course are more likely to stay in the major and demonstrate a 4% attrition rate as compared to a 33% for students who have not taken the course.  This article is of relevance to my project as I intend to integrate research into a 200-level course that has second year students.  Additionally, this article cites some interesting references that I did not pick up in my initial searches.

  1. Luckie, D. B., Maleszewski, J. J., Loznak, S. D., and Krha, M. (2004). Infusion of Collaborative Inquiry throughout a Biology Curriculum Increases Student Learning: a Four-year Study of "Teams and Streams". Advances in Physiology Education 287, 199-209.

The authors describe an alternative to traditional labs in introductory classes for physiology majors.  They note that students do not experience the processes of science in the traditional lab setting. They also suggest that students are turned off by the experience of labs that are of the ‘cookbook’ variety. By making their labs inquiry based, with students developing a research question, designing, and conducting the experiments, the authors demonstrate that they have increased the cognitive level of the learning (based on Bloom’s taxonomy) from knowledge to application, analysis and synthesis.  They balanced “cookbook” labs to learn techniques with the inquiry labs, but started the inquiry part very early in the semester. Initially that authors felt that the experience might be too demanding for the students, however were surprised to find that the students rose to the challenge.  Interestingly, they found that the students participating in these labs showed an increase in performance on content exams in addition to qualitative results reflecting an increase in the positive comments on student feedback forms.  Once the authors established the new inquiry lab format, they returned to the traditional format for a semester, and have been using the new inquiry format since.  They believe that this makes their assessment of the inquiry format much stronger, and I tend to agree. The authors give a thorough curricular design and assessment strategy for both formats for easy comparison.  While my project will be different, as I will be giving them the research problem and not requiring them to initiate the development of their own research question, this is a similar model to what I hope to implement.  On a final note, the authors point out that traditional labs can be very time consuming for the professor, with much work before and after the lab that does not necessarily make for increased learning, and may be a lost opportunity for student learning. They constantly quote their mantra “less teaching, more learning”.

  1. Buckner, B., Beck, J., Browning, K., Fritz, A., Grantham, L., Hoxha, E., Kamvar, Z., Lough, A., Nikolova, O., Schnable, P. S., Scanlon, M. J., and Janick-Buckner, D. (2007). Involving undergraduates in the annotation and analysis of global gene expression studies: creation of a maize shoot apical meristem expression database. Genetics 176, 741-747.

In this article the authors describe a research project involving undergraduates. While this research is not itself a course, the research project itself has similarities with the research (annotation of existing genomic data) that I plan on incorporating into my genetics course.  The article describes annotation of microarray data generated by collaborators at a large university.  In addition to addressing specific questions, the goal of the research is ultimately presentation to the research community, giving students a sense of their participation in the progress of science.  Some of the training for the work occurs in lower level biology courses. The outcomes in this article are anecdotal, with not assessment.

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