Are we doing it all wrong?

At one point during the semester, we had a very unsettling discussion with our graduate TAs. We were reflecting on a new experiment we had implemented working with Schenoplectus americanus, a marsh sedge studied by Jason McLachlan’s lab.  In talking about the ups and downs of the projects, our TAs pointed out that in some ways the whole course seemed backwards.

For context, in the first semester we do some pretty intensive molecular experiments.   These are pretty cool and introduce students to important techniques, but there isn’t much that students can do to think up experiments on their own.   In some cases, like our project with Patty Champion on mycobacterium, students are doing REAL novel work.  Cool to be working on real research, right?

But in the second semester, we step back and ask students to design their own experiments.  One of these is in cardiovascular physiology and they tend to be pretty simple (or not, as I discussed here  It seemed to many of our TAs, that the simpler experiments where students could design their own experiments would be most appropriate to come FIRST in a lab course.   This started to make a lot of sense.  The fact that we start with molecular experiments is primarily driven by the order of topics in the lecture – small to big.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of lab course in general.   To learn the basic path of the scientific process? To learn lab techniques?  To develop your own ideas?  To contribute to novel research?   Based on which of these goals you choose, you might wind up with very different courses.

Thus, my new summer goal.  To really reflect on the specific learning goals for the course overall.  I have these worked out to some extent from the ASM Biology Scholars workshop in 2011, but I want to work on these in more detail.

In terms of implementation, I hope to also include some of the ideas of Daniel Pink in “Drive”.  The keys to motivation:  independence, mastery, and purpose.  But that is for another post.


Blog post #1: Experiments are rarely simple

I thought that I would add my first quick post here to reflect on the physiology experiments currently being conducted in our General Biology Lab B course.

We told students from the outset that we didn’t expect them to produce Nobel Prize level work in Physiology in just two lab sessions.   But that our real goal was for them to have the experience of planning, conducting, analyzing, and communicating an experiment that was all their own.

This last week in lab was busy with the buzz of students doing jumping jacks, drinking coffee, listening to music, all for the sake of science.  I was a subject for two experiments; one that looked at the effect of cold on manual dexterity (I had to hold my arm in ice water for 30 sec.) and one on the effect of spinning (I was spun around in a lab chair 15 times) on a mental task (sorting M&Ms  by color).  I admit that I was lured into the second experiment by the promise of chocolate, but in retrospect, I really should have declined. Call it old age, dehydration, caffeine headache, whatever, but I can tell you that I didn’t feel right for the rest of the day.

Undoubtably for some research groups, this will all feel like a grade school science project.  But for many, I hope that they experienced the real struggle of designing a solid experiment with replication, randomization, and appropriate controls.  The statistical analysis portion of the project always brings up the “it depends” answer to the “which is the right statistical test” question.  Lessons to be learned:  even simplest experiments aren’t simple.