November 19th, 2010

Teaching Undergraduate Research: A Unique Model



Teaching undergraduate research when laboratories are involved is a time-consuming and costly endeavor, especially at those institutions without graduate assistants. One faculty member working alongside two or three students for four hours a week for one credit isn’t a particularly viable approach. For faculty who use undergrads to support their research programs, this approach slows down productivity as proficient students graduate and new ones must be trained in an unending cycle.

Three faculty members at Drake University developed an alternative model, which in some respects harkens back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse. The teaching that occurs in this particular research course (part of a degree program that requires students to participate in research) is done by teachers and senior students. The learning flows “seamlessly among the community of students” (p. 29) as they progress through the course curriculum.

To make the model work, the faculty had to begin by acknowledging that they weren’t the sole knowledge holders in the group. “Students could teach those less experienced if we helped them learn how to lead and teach.” Faculty also were not the only managers in the group. With guidance and instruction, “students could plan, organize, and test if we helped them learn how to manage.” And finally, “students could build community if we helped them learn how to nurture and respect diversity. It was a liberating moment! We could safely step off the stage and become part of the community.” (p. 28)

Like the one-room schoolhouse, all students are together in the same course. They meet as a team for about two hours a week and work in the lab doing research for about 12 hours. Students are in the lab throughout the day according to a prearranged schedule. They participate based on their level of experience; some are novice researchers, others senior researchers, and still others mentors.

Since this model was developed, it has generated a number of benefits, including an increased level of comfort for students, even though initially the learning curve is very steep. Student mentors work closely with students new to the course, which leaves faculty free to help with particularly challenging research techniques. The course also develops a stronger sense of community among students, in part because they learn much more than just how to conduct research. “They also learned to teach, nurture, plan, manage, build a team, solve the problem, organize, communicate, etc. In other words, they learn to operate in a team and to become team leaders.” (p. 31) Faculty note that this kind of learning involved new skills for them to teach.

Perhaps the most important measure of this model’s success has been its productivity. In one year, which the faculty describe as typical, the course resulted in nine oral presentations at professional meetings, two papers submitted for publication, and one paper published in an international journal. Participants in projects for that year included two faculty, one surgeon, one research scientist, one surgical resident, and 33 undergraduate students. The course is managed by three faculty members who productively engage an average of 30 students a semester in research. That makes their one-room schoolhouse model a very impressive one.

Reference: Henderson, L., Buising, C., and Walls, P. (2008). Teaching undergraduate research: The one-room schoolhouse model. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36 (1), 28-33.

Excerpted from Teaching Undergraduate Research: A Unique Model. The Teaching Professor, 23.4 (2009): 2.

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