January 04, 2016

An undergraduate science course built around the research process

Students in Kevin Lam's second-year course in biological research were enthusiastic about the direct experience they acquired in all aspects of the research process.

The mug that students gave to instructor Kevin Lam at the end of the course was a testament to their increased understanding of statistics.

Students engaged in lab work, field work, data collection and analysis, as well as substantial amounts of writing and peer review.

When Kevin Lam was an SFU undergraduate, he regretted what he felt was a lack of exposure to research activities. Now, as a lecturer in Biological Sciences, he is working to ensure that current students have greater opportunities. One outcome has been BISC 272, a course in biological research that Lam developed with the help of his colleague Tony Williams (professor in Biological Sciences).

BISC 272 ran in Summer 2015 with 23 students, most of whom were not biology majors. Lam recruited them by visiting first-year classrooms and asking interested students to fill out an application form. The selling point was that they would gain a unique research experience.

“It’s outside of what they’re used to,” says Lam. He notes that on the one hand the course did not fit neatly into the academic path many students follow, and on the other hand it promised to be quite demanding. As a result, he describes the students who signed up as “those who were brave as well as ambitious.”

“This course is definitely different from any other lower division course you could take at SFU. It is an amazing experience. You spend a lot of valuable time doing things that are actually fun and exciting in the lab, rather than following lab manuals …” – Marisa Yip, student

“Kevin's course helped me get a taste of what research actually is even before entering my second year.” – Stephanie Lam

The course, which Lam says was modelled on a three-semester Freshman Research Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, was designed to expose students to the full range of activities associated with research—from designing experiments and collecting data to writing research papers and presenting posters. During the first six weeks, the class tackled four problems through a combination of lectures and labs that provided a “crash course” in the research process.

“I tried to get them to see the breadth and scope of biological research from a small petri dish to entire ecosystems,” says Lam.

In the last seven weeks, students undertook their own research projects in groups of three. The main output was a research paper that passed through several rounds of peer review.

“Everything they were doing was something they hadn’t done before,” says Lam. “If they could learn it from a book or somewhere else, I didn’t do it.”

“Reading about research is one thing, but actually conducting scientific investigations with your own hands is another thing entirely. I'm glad I took the opportunity to put myself in an environment where I could get that hands-on experience with research … My writing, scientific thinking, and presentation skills have all improved.” – Nancy Lum, student

“One of the most invaluable parts of BISC 272 was the amount of hands-on, self-directed lab work that I've never experienced before in a standard university course. The ability to test our own theories, make mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes offered an incredibly unique learning opportunity.” – Shayda Swann, student

“You grow as a person in BISC 272, in a way that you cannot get from any other class. You grow in your ability to make scientifically sound decisions that are both logical and feasible, you become more confident in being able to organize experimental methods and analyze your results—with no pre-determined answer waiting for you. You become excited to come to lab, to see how your results turn out, then dig around in scientific journals to try and figure out why you observed those results.” – Christine Wang, student

In addition to the research component, Lam sought to develop his students’ writing skills and ability to work in groups—all without the help of a teaching assistant.

“That was a mistake,” he says with a wry grin. “It ended up being a soul-crunching amount of work.” If he offers the course again, he says, he will probably eliminate the writing emphasis.

Still, he is happy with the overall course model and feels other instructors could adapt it without much trouble: “I think it’s definitely doable, especially for instructors who are way better researchers than I am. It’s an easy way [for students] to experience inquiry-based experiential learning, and professors can link to their own research in the choice of problems.”

As for the students, their course evaluations indicated that the course was “lots of work, but worth it.” They celebrated the end of the course by presenting Lam with an ice cream cake, a bottle of wine and a mug that read—in a reference to their newly acquired data analysis skills—“Best prof ever with 95% confidence.”