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There is a shortcoming in our current educational system. There is too much rote learning, and not enough time given to let science-minded students explore a topic. Overall, when students ask their own questions (not ones given to them by instructors), they become more invested in finding the answers.
Summer always runs by too fast. We all set goals at the end of spring for what we should accomplish with all of our “free” time over the coming months. It is a good exercise, but diving into those tasks ultimately seems to speed up time. One thing I always try to do is to pick a few things to read that don’t carry a journal citation in the header. On trips to the bookstore, I often feel like I am walking into the grocery store on an empty stomach. That’s okay, as long as I actually read half of what I purchase. Recently, I picked up a book entitled A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. I was intrigued by the author’s take on promoting inquiry through asking more and better questions-in life, in business, and in education. It has quickly become one of my favorite books. I am nearly finished with it, but I am determined to reread the entire book immediately (with a notebook in hand) when I am finished the first go-around.
Recently, I was asked to give a presentation to some students, on the first day of classes, who are a part of our fairly new program, called Achieving Success in Science through Undergraduate Research and Engagement (ASSURE). The attendees were first semester sophomores, with whom we have been working for the past year to provide a unique research experience in lieu of standard run-of-the-mill introductory chemistry and biology lab courses. ASSURE is modeled after the highly successful Freshman Research Initiative, which has become quite a large program at the University of Texas at Austin. Here, in ASSURE, students trade standard laboratory course experiences for the opportunity to pursue authentic research questions. In principal, the basic lab skills and concepts that are taught in standard laboratory courses can be well conveyed and practiced in the context of a well-designed research theme. Importantly, one of the most critical components to communicate to the student when they begin, is how to ask a good scientific question. There is a shortcoming in our current educational system. There is too much rote learning, and not enough time given to let science-minded students explore a topic. Overall, when students ask their own questions (not ones given to them by instructors), they become more invested in finding the answers. Those of us who are practicing scientists and engineers know the joy associated with discovery. We must have a question, design an experiment, collect data, and find the answer to that question. Of course, many times, one question leads to other questions-that is the beauty of research. We want to give a taste of this concept to students as early as possible.
For the first ASSURE group, we chose a topic of natural product drug discovery. This topic appeals to a large number of our students who have plans for medical and pharmacy careers; our first cohort was designed as an intentional mix of biology and chemistry majors. It is also an area that a UT Arlington biology professor and I have been exploring for some years, specifically the discovery of novel natural product antibiotics from marine organisms (1). This is a very nice topic, because there is a wealth of literature available, but still much unexplored space exists to generate novel questions from students about either the presence of active compounds in marine sources, or new means by which these active compounds can be extracted and analyzed. For example, one might begin with a traditional bioassay-guided fractionation scheme, but ultimately the type or amount of sample might limit this traditional resource- and time-intensive route to discovery. Instead, we proposed an initial roadmap, based on standard steps, but encouraged students to deviate as necessary, or as interesting questions arose. Together with this educational research stream, we have also been able to advance our interests and research on techniques, such as transmission-mode desorption ionization mass spectrometry, to accelerate analysis of natural products (2).
The students began with a research methods course to introduce them to basic laboratory skills, inquiry, and methods for evaluating data. It is interesting to note that some concepts, such as statistics, which may not be covered until later courses, can be better introduced in context, and the students seem to grasp the material more effectively. After one semester of research methods, the students move into a Research Stream, which is focused wholly on their natural product research. They have written a proposal and argued for a direction to take their research. During this second semester, the research progresses from a more guided to a more open inquiry model. We found that students in this program performed exceedingly well in their coursework despite not having the traditional laboratory courses, but we still need to assess whether these outcomes are due to the program or due to self-selection. In other words, we had some pretty stellar students in the first cohort of ASSURE students, and it is likely that they would have excelled in their coursework regardless. These are questions that we must answer as we move forward. Some students won awards at a local research conference for the research they performed and presented.
Now, in their third semester, I was given the opportunity to coax the students into a much more open inquiry model. These students are tasked with devising three questions that could frame the new directions for their research in natural product drug discovery. While we can help the students pick the routes that are more feasible, it was clear that the students were excited to take further ownership of their projects and pursue investigations in uncharted territories. Some were definitely interested in involving friends outside of the course, especially those with other expertise and interests, and this enthusiasm and level of interest was encouraging to see. This will be the last semester for the first ASSURE cohort, but we surmise that the vast majority of these students will pursue additional research opportunities during the remainder of their undergraduate career and beyond. With a new fall semester, we have started a second cohort of students and included modifications to hopefully continually improve the program.
Being a professor affords me the opportunity to continually try new things in education and research. This program provides an exciting new mix for those endeavors. We see this as a model that could propagate across the Colleges of Science and Engineering here at UT Arlington, as more faculty see the benefit of deviating from the standard educational model. Of course, we must pursue funding and justify our results to acquire additional resources, but I feel it is our duty to try to break the norm and improve our educational programs for the good of our students. Importantly, we have a heavy complement of diverse and first-generation college students at UT Arlington. Best practices show that placing these students in cohorts and presenting them with common challenges, around which they can form learning communities, is the best way to ensure their engagement and success. Additionally, we have a better chance of retaining these students in their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) discipline, since they can put their hands on relevant topics and relate the material back to their coursework. I have always felt that there are two ways to make change at a university: either very slowly or with a lot of money. This new endeavor is one, though it is starting modestly, through which I think real change can be effected. I predict that more and more financial support will come as we show the value of this model.
(1) K.A. Schug, E. Wang, S. Shen, S. Rao, S. Crader, L. Hunt, L.D. Mydlarz, Anal. Chim. Acta713, 103–110 (2012).
(2) S.H. Yang, E.H. Wang, J.A. Gurak, S. Bhawal, R. Deshmukh, A.B. Wijeratne, B.L. Edwards, F.W. Foss Jr., R.B. Timmons, and K.A. Schug, Langmuir29, 8046–8053 (2013).
Previous blog entries from Kevin Schug: