As a Teaching Professor, teaching and research are inseparable. I am engaged in the research process so that I can bring current research into the classroom and share the excitement and dynamic nature of scientific discovery. On the flip side, I also explore ways in which we can bring more undergraduate students into authentic research experiences. This is the current focus of my pedagogical research.
Authentic research opportunities for students in large enrolment programs
In the United States, undergraduate research experiences have been identified as an essential element of the undergraduate curriculum (Brownell et al, 2015; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011; National Research Council, 2003). Undergraduate student research has been identified as the “purest form of teaching” (NRC, 2003, p. 87), and “an integral component of biology education for all students” (AAAS, 2011, p. xiv). Authentic research experiences are those in which students are working directly in a research lab and contributing to novel research and discovery. Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROPs), in which students are engaged in authentic research, are regarded as the most effective way of encouraging students to stay in and succeed in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM; Seymour et al, 2004; Russell et al, 2007; Kloser et al, 2011). For students, the traditional route to obtaining this research experience has been in their fourth year through an honours thesis in a faculty research lab. Despite the accepted belief that the undergraduate experience can be greatly enhanced by engaging students in research opportunities, there are simply not enough positions available for all students.
With increasing numbers of undergraduate students, most students will be enrolled in one or more course-based labs while students in elite programs are engaged in inquiry-based projects. Space, resources, and importantly time, limit student access to an authentic experience in a research lab. In addition, the experience, when available, is restricted to the fourth year. This means that a vital complement of skills and attitudes essential to modern science – critical yet creative thinking, experimental design, data interpretation, even career planning – are only experienced (if at all) toward the end of a student’s undergraduate studies.
In order to offer an authentic research experience to more undergraduate students, I have directly mentored over 70 honors undergraduate research projects over the past 9 years. These have all been collaborative student experience, inviting the formation of the term, CUROPS (Collaborative Undergraduate Research Projects) in which students work with a group of five to six peers to learn techniques and develop research skills. They then identify an independent project to pursue for their thesis. Recently, my research has centered on the Nematode Diversity Project in collaboration with Dr. Bhagwati Gupta. This is part of a continuing project to identify new species of nematodes. Groups of students learn the techniques of collecting, decontaminating, and studying nematodes, but they isolate and culture independent strains from the field. Each student establishes ownership over their project because they are studying their own strain, but they collaborate to learn and practice research skills. Each year for the past six years we have collected six to eight independent strains. The data is being accumulated and stored on a public database. Students who participate in the project learn a variety of techniques from fieldwork to microscopy and from DNA sequencing to phylogenetic analysis.
Core to the Nematode Diversity Project is the development of resources, including an iBook lab manual, which enable multiple students to collaborate as a group in learning lab skills and techniques, while maintaining the autonomy of an independent thesis project. I am currently exploring how this iBook tool may be translatable to other undergraduate research projects at McMaster University and elsewhere. This is the focus of my Paul R. MacPherson Teaching Fellowship (2015 to 2016).
The four primary goals of this project are: (1) My own mentorship of multiple students each year in independent research projects; (2) Developing the teaching tools to allow colleagues to expand their undergraduate research opportunities to more students; (3) Bringing some of these tools into first and second year courses so that students can participate early and often in novel, discovery-based research; and (4) Providing more opportunities for students and faculty in the form of small project funding and undergraduate research space.
The pedagogical research that is tied to this project is exploring the benefits and disadvantages of the CUROP compared to the traditional thesis project. This includes research questions about (1) the lab experience and the power of undergraduate peer-to-peer teaching in the research lab, (2) the value to the supervisor and research lab in terms of time required for hands-on supervision by the lab mentor (graduate student or postdoc) and the efficient use of lab resources, and (3) expanding the research opportunity to students who may not usually participate including those who are introverted and fail to approach advisors, those who work better in peer-group environments, and those who have (dis)abilities that limit their access to a traditional lab thesis.
This research has been funded by internal McMaster University funding including funding from MIIETL (formally CLL) Teaching and Learning Grants, MSU Academic Science Fund grants, and most recently by a Paul R. MacPherson Teaching Fellowship (2015 to 2016). This work has had an impact on teaching practice in my courses including the incorporation of authentic research in Biology1A03 and Biology2C03, as well as an impact on the expansion of undergraduate research opportunities in Biology.
In addition, I have pursued three other pedagogical research projects in collaboration with colleagues and undergraduate thesis students.
The application of online modules in blended learning
I have designed and partnered in designing two blended courses in the Department of Biology, Biology 2B03 (Cell Biology) and Biology 1A03 (Introduction to Molecular and Cellular Biology) over the past two years. Current research is focusing upon the impact of online modules on student learning and determining best practices for student learning in online or blended courses. This work has been presented at the McMaster Learning Technologies Symposium (2015) and internationally at the How Life Works Adopters Camp (Boston, 2015) and I was co-organized of the Blending Biology Symposium in December 2015 at McMaster University (BlendedLearning@McMaster).
Preconceptions and misconceptions and their impact on student learning.
This research falls into two categories, Math Concept Inventories in Life Sciences and Genetics Concept Inventories. To date I have had three undergraduate research projects focused on this topic. The purpose of these research projects is to develop new approaches to teaching these concepts in my courses and to share these teaching tools with my co-instructors.
Scientific literacy in the Life Sciences.
There are many essential skills that scientists must develop as undergraduates that fall under the title of scientific literacy. One of these skills is the ability to engage in scientific discourse: to present an argument, to defend the proposal with research data, and to be prepared to modify the argument when new, contradictory, data is presented. My research to date has focused upon the value of peer feedback on developing scientific discourse skills. This work has been presented (The Annual Meeting of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 2011) and published (Chong, Goff, and Dej, 2012).