March 06, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

A $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow faculty to build more research into the biology classroom.

Many college students have the same experience of learning science: “Lecture, lecture, lecture,” said Calvin biology professor Dave Koetje, “which, it turns out, was not the best way to learn.”

Students who do succeed in a lecture-style learning environment often do the actual work of learning outside the classroom, explained Calvin chemistry professor Herb Fynewever:

“Some of our best students can come in and listen to a lecture and, even if they don’t understand it all, they can write it out like a transcript, and they can go back to the dorm and look at the notes, look at the textbook and talk to their peers.”

Those students who can’t follow a lecture and figure it out later often give up on science. “People would get weeded out,” Koetje said. “That’s not desirable.”

Less lecture, more research

Koetje and Fynewever—with biology professors Amy Wilstermann and Randy Van Dragt and mathematics professor Randy Pruim—are hoping to take the learning that happens in dorm rooms (and apartments) back to the classroom. Their project is called “Leveraging Laboratory Activities to Achieve Educational Reform,” and it’s funded by a three-year, $199,990 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science program.

The team will focus on improving labs in two biology courses: BIO224 ("Cellular and Genetic Systems") and BIO225 ("Ecological and Evolutionary Systems").

“The new model will be short, multiple-week, miniature investigations,” Koetje said. “In the process students will be learning research competencies that are essential for addressing complex scientific questions.” The mini-labs are modeled on those in Calvin’s first-year science research class funded by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant:

“We’ll start out with a research question. Students will be reading research articles and designing experiments to answer that question,” Koetje said. “They will be analyzing the data—applying statistical analyses. Then they’ll be sharing their results.” Faculty involved in the project will visit and critique the labs from the perspectives of their various disciplines.

The improved labs will give a broader range of students access to a science research experience, he said. (Currently, around 100 students in the science division assist faculty as researchers, many of them during the summer.)

“If we want to get our students into the best research institutions, we have to give them these research opportunities,” said Fynewever.

A shared scientific language

The NSF-funded project will also focus on improving communication among the sciences. Currently, scholars in different scientific disciplines speak in different jargons, and often, scientists have different definitions for the same term. One example, said Fynewever, is “equilibrium,” which in biology can refer to the sense of balance felt in the inner ear or to a relatively stable state in a biological system and in chemistry the term pertains to how reactants go forth to products and products come back until balance is achieved.

“That’s where chemists and biologists don’t speak the same language,” said Fynewever: “Chemists are talking about reactions in a vessel where you achieve equilibrium, but biologists are talking about equilibrium in organisms—where equilibrium is never achieved in the chemistry sense of the word.”

Koetje agreed: “You can’t simply apply a biological definition to solve a chemical problem and vice versa without understanding the nuances.”

The lack of a shared scientific language is especially troublesome when the scientific disciplines collaborate.  Fynewever framed the quandary in this way: “What kind of language do you use when you talk in math about biology?” The faculty attached to the project will work at developing a shared jargon among Calvin’s scientific disciplines.   (Another portion of the grant will be used for faculty development.)

The grant was designed as the next step in integrating the sciences at Calvin—an  effort that includes several NSF and HHMI-funded efforts: the Integrated Science Research Institute, the first-year student research class (the “phage” class), the Integrated Science Research Experimental Laboratory.

The faculty involved in this latest NSF project are excited about the opportunity to improve the teaching of science. “We have three years to revitalize college teaching,” Fynewever joked.

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