Let Them Run Their Own Labs

“Research is creating new knowledge.”
Neil Armstrong

I suspect that people have been arguing about teaching science since we started teaching science. There are multiple groups that each have their models and best practices. In recent years we have even seen the progression of specialized undergraduate majors. Which suggests that some schools think content that used to be part of a foundational bachelor’s degree is no longer necessary.

One of the things that most of the groups interested in science education agree on is the more like real science we can make the learning experience the better the learning and understanding of science will be. There are even some schools like Reed College that requires all their students to complete a senior thesis and oral defense, under a faculty members supervision, to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Imagine if every bachelor’s student could spend a year studying and writing about a topic in their field that interested them. Not only would students get to “geek out” about a topic that interested them, think about how much we would learn.

Chemical research lab, Beckenham. Two chemists at work, surrounded by equipment and apparatus. Archives & Manuscripts, This file comes from Wellcome Images, license CC BY 4.0
Chemical research lab, Beckenham. Two chemists at work, surrounded by equipment and apparatus. Archives & Manuscripts, This file comes from Wellcome Images, license CC BY 4.0

The problem with Reed’s model is that it does not scale. Reed College has an enrollment of 1400 students and a 9 to 1 student to faculty ratio. It’s not feasible to scale this to a Tier 1 research institution that has 25 – 40 thousand students and nowhere near a 9 to 1 student to faculty ratio. Faculty don’t have space in their research labs to support student populations in the 10s of thousands.

There have also been a lot of programs developed and tested to provide students with research experiences. Most of these programs are small only 20 – 30 students. Also, a lot of these programs are short 8 – 12 weeks during summer. Additionally, since most are small, they have become highly competitive leading to access to only the top students.

While these programs have their heart in the right place, they are not going to provide research experiences to all students with program sizes of 20 – 30 students. If we are going to have a goal of providing research experiences for all bachelor’s students, we need another approach.

I have put a lot of thought into the idea of incorporation research into required laboratory science classes. If we incorporated a year-long research project in required laboratory courses all students would get research experiences. Additionally, the class would be more coherent because experiments would flow one to the other based on the results from previous work. However, research as a lab course is an idea for another day.

I recently came across an article that potentially presents another way to give students real research experiences. Before I get to the article, I want to show some of the background ideas that make this idea possible.
One of the most significant problems with scaling research experiences in a large university is the availability of space in faculty research labs and the availability of research mentors. It might be possible to reduce the burden on faculty by using the knowledge of the crowd.

We already use per – per instruction in large lecture classes, why not use it in research. After all, in professional research, you can’t look up the answer to your research question. In professional research, we talk to our colleagues and try out experiments until we get a direction or answer the question. Additionally, many of the groups that are interested in science education suggest having students work in groups.

The idea for undergraduate research comes from an article Pushing Boundaries: Undergrad launches student-driven particle astrophysics research group published in CU Boulder today on November 16, 2018. The article describes a research group formed by Jamie Principato that was established and run by undergraduates. The group is composed of 30 undergraduates who are designing and building an instrument to measure cosmic radiation. The group’s detector has already flown on high altitude balloons. You can read the full article here.

From my point of view, one of the most interesting things is that the 30 members of the group had little or no previous research experience. While Jamie Principato is an exceptional student, I can’t help but think undergraduate formed research groups could be the solution or at least part of the solution to undergraduate research experiences.

Depending on the question some of these groups could run for years with new undergraduates joining each year. If we think of undergraduate research groups having about 30 students than a departmental graduating class of 250 students would need nine groups a class of 500 would require 17 groups. With some proper planning and organizing this seems a reasonable number of groups for a department.

What do you think could student-run, and organized research groups be the solution to undergraduate research experiences for all students? Do you think undergraduate research experiences for all students are something we should be trying to develop? I think student-run and organized research groups could be the solution to undergraduate research experiences for all students, especially at large universities.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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