TIG Recipient AY2017/2018

SHARING ANALYSES OF “BIOLAB” AT THE DROSOPHILIA RESEARCH CONFERENCE
Nicholas Tolwinski, Assistant Professor of Biology, Science Division

 

PROJECT

The purpose of this grant is to support student and faculty travel to The Drosophila Research Conference in order to present pedagogical advances in teaching. The student involved has taken the lead in running surveys of students who have completed the course, and in writing of two manuscripts detailing the work. We will be presenting the findings at a conference in the US. The grant is to further support the publication and analysis of the work done so far.

The main purpose of our research has been to evaluate the success of strategies designed to develop skills in laboratory research and experimental analysis in the Biology major at Yale-NUS. To do so, we performed an analysis of the course “BioLab,” which is a required course in the biology major. BioLab is a strong contrast to the traditional model of biology laboratory education. While the traditional model of lab education tends to be centered on the idea of a supplementary lab section which re-enforces concepts discussed in lecture, BioLab treats laboratory skills as a subject deserving its own rigorous treatment. Given trends in science education, the importance of not only practical laboratory skills but also “soft skills” in the laboratory environment such as troubleshooting, scientific writing, identification and minimization of experimental error, experimental analysis, etc. is clear. Therefore, BioLab was developed using an inquiry-based pedagogical model which was designed to promote the development of high-level skills which would be applicable to biology students who would later conduct original research as part of their Capstone.

 

 

OUTCOMES

Through this research, we have extensively drawn upon literature from the scholarship of teaching and learning as well as psychology. We have developed a novel theoretical structure drawing upon the psychological literature which explains how students learn to translate low-level understanding of laboratory techniques into high-level skills in research. Our main contention is that students advance up a skill hierarchy listed below:

  1. Theoretical understanding of technique
  2. Practical knowledge of the technique
  3. Applying the technique to novel situations
  4. Using reasoning skills to improve the technique’s application to novel situations
  5. Deeply understand the execution and the implications of data obtained through the technique, including limitations

We then argue from the psychological literature that when a student makes genuine progress along this skill hierarchy, they begin to develop an intellectual scaffold for future advanced skills in reasoning. In essence, learning one technique deeply results in positive transfer not only in performing related tasks, but in understanding them.

When analyzing BioLab, we took significant steps to identify learning opportunities that existed outside the traditional lecturer-student dyad. Students were encouraged to have casual, honest conversations with instructors and each other about the practicalities of lab experience. Furthermore, instead of punishing students for failing to obtain or replicate a desired result, failure was considered an instrumental component of the pedagogical approach. Indeed, students were encouraged to interrogate all findings, regardless of whether the result was positive or negative.

Our research was supplemented by semi-structured interviews with 9 of 10 eligible students who took the course, which revealed that students overall found the course to be a successful way of teaching crucial laboratory skills as well as developing soft skills in scientific writing and reasoning.