I’m at the Ecological Society meeting this week, where we’re doing a big introduction of our SimUText Ecology chapters. In the cracks I’ve been going to talks (and giving one myself). ESA is impressive as a society in the amount and quality of educational research included at their national meeting. There are several sessions throughout the week on different topics around education, far more than any other conference we go to that’s not specifically educational. Not only that, the presentations are not just “here is my shiny new teaching module I developed” – people are presenting real research studies, with real, thought-provoking data. I’ve been enjoying it all.
One interesting talk I heard was by Rebecca Jordan from Rutgers who discussed a study of how students interact with standard intro bio labs. She did a pretty simple experiment. Students were given an invertebrate that they were not familiar with and asked what kind of food it preferred. With some pairs of students, she handed them a box of materials they could use. With others, she just gave them a piece of paper and asked them to design any experiments they wanted. She then watched, and scored how creative their designs were, how well they brought in knowledge about biology, and how long they took.
It turns out that having a set of materials in front of the students stifled their thought process. They were less creative in their experimental designs and thought less about the biology. Instead, they tried to make an experiment using the materials in front of them as if it was a kit and they just had to figure out the proper way to put all the pieces together. By contrast, students who just had to write a design down thought more about the biology, and made more creative and better experimental designs. Moreover, the students writing on paper took almost half the time of those with all the materials. One other interesting result was that physics grad students presented with the same protocol did no better than undergrads – there was no transfer from their knowledge of physics to their ability to design a biology experiment (biology graduate students did do better).
In our simulated labs, we often introduce students one by one to a set of experimental tools they can use and then open the lab up to let them design their own experiments. I think this is a bit different than Jordan’s protocol, in that we are explaining what each tool is for and showing them how to use it before setting them loose. Nevertheless, it made me a think about how our own labs might benefit from asking the students to do some initial thinking about experimental design before they are presented any tools at all. It could be tricky to do without students becoming lost, but certainly worth trying in our own research.