By Matthew N. Srnec, PhD Student, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University
As many teacher-scholars are aware, team-based learning and collaborative activities are a vital part of today’s learning environment. As traditional lectures transition to flipped-classroom approaches, collaborative learning has become a very powerful tool. However, in my judgment, one discipline in particular struggles to incorporate collaborative, team-based learning, and that is the sciences. There are plenty of exceptions to this trend, but as a whole, scientists stick to the traditional approach – think of all those equations, slide after slide after slide!
My own work in chemistry has allowed me to experience both the individual and collaborative side of science. I am not the traditional bench-top chemist, wearing lab coat and goggles, which comes to mind when someone hears the word chemistry. I spend the majority of my time working with computational tools aimed at predicting interesting properties of materials before time and resources are invested in making them on the bench-top. In my remaining time, I think critically about my teaching strategies in general chemistry, physical chemistry, as well as my role as the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s first National Science Foundation (NSF) Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) graduate fellow.
This post is focused on teaching collaborative undergraduate research skills in the sciences, which I have been actively involved in the last two years as the NSF STEM fellow. Reflecting on the ultimate goal of this STEM project, I was reminded of a previous blog entry on Duquesne’s The Flourishing Academic by Dr. Sarah Wallace, assistant professor of speech-language pathology at Duquesne University. Dr. Wallace shared her experiences with team-based learning and referenced a powerful quote by Helen Keller – “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
Undergraduate research in the sciences is often carried out in a one-on-one setting with a faculty member or graduate student. Here, the undergraduate is informed of the overall goals of the project, is trained in the basic techniques, and is then expected to independently collect and interpret results. However, an important component of research is the ability to communicate those findings via writing and speaking. These skills are not frequently taught to students carrying out their research, and even less frequently are they refined through interaction with peers. It is this collaborative, team-based learning approach to undergraduate research experience that makes our program unique and sufficiently prepares our undergraduates for future careers in science.
The development and refining of undergraduate research students’ communication skills are achieved through our summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), Undergraduate Research Program (URP), and Student Research Experience (SRE) programs. Here, our Center for Computational Sciences holds collaborative group meetings for approximately 20 undergraduate research students over the course of a 10-week program. Along with carrying out their projects in the lab, each student gives four 10-15 minute presentations and writes four 2-page papers pertaining to their project. These presentations and papers are structured according to the scientific method: phase 1 – background, hypothesis, and specific aims; phase 2 – previous work published in the literature; phase 3 – methodology and limitations/error analysis; phase 4 – results and interpretation.
As the students present their projects to their peers, graduate students, and faculty, a collaborative, team-based learning atmosphere is incorporated into the research experience. Along with refining their presentation and writing skills, students are asked questions regarding their project and obtain valuable feedback (through the use of comment sheets) for improving experiments and overall presentation. Similarly, the students’ writing skills are refined through the submission of written documents, structured in the same sense as the presentations, to their research advisor and graduate students. Here, they obtain valuable feedback on their writing skills and walk away with a drafted manuscript of their project at the end of the 10-week program.
While some laboratory experiences may predominantly remain one-on-one in nature, this STEM experience aims to address the absence of collaborative, team-based research skill development and is a very unique program for mentors and mentees alike. As the STEM graduate fellow, this teaching experience provides me the opportunity to advise several summer undergraduates on their research projects, organize group meetings, lead the student presentation Q/A sessions, tabulate the results from the feedback sheets, and draft Journal of Chemical Education manuscripts in order to communicate our approach and findings to others in the scientific community. The structure of this summer program has also been implemented in the chemistry curriculum at Duquesne with the 490H/W (research for credit) course.
Matthew N. Srnec is a fourth year graduate student in Duquesne’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, working under Dr. Jeffry D. Madura in the Center for Computational Sciences. He received his bachelors in chemistry from Washington and Jefferson College.