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Students as Producers: Incorporating Research and Design in Science and Engineering Courses

Posted by on Monday, October 7, 2013 in News.

by Julie Lapidot, CFT Student Assistant, and Derek Bruff, CFT Director

On September 25th, the Center for Teaching hosted a conversation on teaching on the theme of “Students as Producers” organized by CFT assistant director Cynthia Brame. The conversation centered around one idea: How can we help students in a science or engineering course engage in more authentic research and design experiences, ones in which they become co-producers of knowledge? Panelists John Ayers, Professor and Chair of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Mark Woelfle, Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences, and Tom Withrow, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Mechanical Engineering, described how they answer this question in the context of their own classrooms.

Professor Ayers discussed a service-learning project he conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Tennessee State University.  His geochemistry students tested soil and water samples from homes in an under-resourced area in Nashville for toxicity levels. The final product for this project was a toxicity report with suggestions and comments regarding possible health concerns presented to the homeowners of the land where the samples were taken. Through this project, students actively engaged with the concepts from the classroom, applying them to tackle real problems outside the classroom. The final report required students to consider their audience—homeowners without particular science backgrounds—and write in a way that audience would understand the project’s findings.

Ayers has assigned this project twice now, each time learning how to make the project better. He realized the importance of requiring students to do research about the neighborhoods under study before visiting those areas to collect samples. This helps the students invest in the project before fieldwork begins and ensures they understand the procedures and background thoroughly before collecting samples. Ayers also learned that this sort of project requires a lot of effort by the instructor up front in the form of research and planning. Such a project can be a challenge for both professor and the students, but Ayers believes the benefits  outweigh the costs. Not only have these projects helped students develop disciplinary skills and knowledge, but they have also had a positive effect on Ayers’ research: an unexpected discovery made by the students in the first iteration was essential for an NSF grant proposal by Ayers that was recently funded.

Professor Withrow’s course project also involved producing something of value for an external audience. Withrow’s students designed and built remote, scale-model, amphibious vehicles that were tested against vehicles built by student teams from other universities at a competition sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Withrow explained that the competition’s deadlines and potential for failure or victory motivated the students to work harder, putting in the extra effort to produce a working amphibious vehicle.

Withrow noted that engineering is not a simple, linear process.  It requires hitting and then recovering from roadblocks, that is, learning from failure.  The amphibious vehicle project gave his students experience with the open-ended and failure-prone nature of actual engineering work, something that doesn’t always happen in more traditional engineering courses.  The fairly rigid timeline of the competition meant that missing deadlines had tough consequences for students, something they learned to take seriously.  His students put in many hours of work outside of class.  They sometimes grumbled about the workload, but by the end of the competition (where they took second place), many thanked him for such a rewarding learning experience.

Dealing with failure and the “messiness” of real science was also a theme of the genetics lab described by Professor Woelfle in which students generated and characterized mutations in a key pathway for DNA synthesis in budding yeast, an important eukaryotic model system. One of the project’s objectives was for students to encounter false starts, unexpected results, and, yes, failure because these are all experiences they are sure to have when involved in research outside of his course.  Helping students through these challenges involved many informal interactions between instructor and students during lab time, along with guided small group work, particularly important in a large class like Woelfle’s.

Woelfle asked his students to produce a journal-style report summarizing their work—results as well as process. To help students prepare these reports, Woelfle provided resources and guidance, including a writing day in which students can ask questions about the technique, style, and method of writing a journal article. Woelfle also asked students to turn in drafts prior to their final reports, which allowed him to provide customized advice to students on their writing. Woelfle found it critical to give students feedback along the way if they are to produce good work by the end of the course.

By connecting students with external audiences for their work and by allowing their students to experience and learn from failures, these faculty have motivated and supported their students in their courses in authentic research and design experiences. The course projects are always evolving; as the students learn about science or engineering, the professors also learn—about what works and what could work better in these projects, refining the projects over time to make them more meaningful and educational to the students.

For another capture of the conversation, see CFT director Derek Bruff’s sketchnotes. Click on the image to the right for a larger version.

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