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For first-year biology students, it’s “time to science”

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17 October 2018

Materials Research Institute
Materials Research Institute

The words “Time to Science” are written on a laboratory white board. In the rest of the room there are first-year biology students milling around lab benches, measuring, writing, and talking.

It’s definitely “time to science” according to Emma Doman, fourth-year biology major, who is a teaching assistant in the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) laboratory and who also explained that “time to science” means “it’s time to get to work, to start thinking and figuring things out.”

The FRI is indeed a way to get first-year students engaged in laboratory research in a different way than students have traditionally been introduced to the laboratory. It’s throwing them in the deep end of the pool, so to speak, with the intention of having an experienced swimmer emerge more quickly, or in the case of science, having an inspired researcher as a result.

Will Barnes (left) and Wilton Smith (right), teaching assistants for the FRI, prepare plates for growing plant seedlings.
Will Barnes (left) and Wilton Smith (right), teaching assistants for the FRI, prepare plates for growing plant seedlings.
The goal of the FRI is to have first-year students experience science from a discovery perspective rather than simply a learning perspective and to get them excited about the process of science and the process of discovery so they can put the learning they gain from their core classes in perspective and understand how scientific knowledge is obtained by experimentation.

Penn State’s Eberly College of Science is known for its abundance of research. Whether on the faculty, as a graduate student, or even as an undergraduate, you “do” science by conducting research. There are more than 3,000 research projects across a number of areas, from discovery of new planets to solving hitherto unsolved equations.

It is not uncommon for prospective science students to choose the Eberly College of Science over another higher education option based on the opportunity to do research. In fact, more than 50 percent of all Eberly College of Science juniors and seniors participate in a research activity.

“At New Student Orientation, one of the student helpers told me about the FRI and that it was a cool way to get involved in lab research,” said Doman. “Research was why I wanted to come to Penn State, and this course looked like it was right for me.”

Doman, now a senior and FRI teaching assistant, was a student in the inaugural year of FRI and credits it for giving her the opportunity to learn what a real laboratory experience is like.

“In cookie-cutter labs, everything is spelled out for the student,” said Doman. “In the FRI, the pipettes are over here and the microscope is over there and the student needs to figure out what they need. I’m there to help them if they ask, but they need to figure things out for themselves to really learn it.”

“Freshmen are an interesting mix of students,” said Charles Anderson, assistant professor of biology and an instructor of the FRI course. “They know certain content from high school courses, and they are gaining knowledge from their initial courses, but they are assimilating knowledge continuously and are really enthusiastic and open to trying new things, which is different than a junior or senior who has been steeped in the dogma of scientific concepts.”

This openness creates an opportunity to break away from the cookbook laboratory experiences that first-year students might have experienced in high school and gives them the freedom to explore, learn, and develop as researchers. This is where the FRI is different than traditional first-year laboratory experiences.

Innovative learning environments like the FRI are part of a college-wide effort to engage students more in the learning process, with the expectation that more-deeply engaged students are more likely to stay in STEM and graduate.

The first semester of the FRI is a biology boot camp where students learn basic techniques like pipetting and PCR. They also are introduced to experimental design and learn how to develop a hypothesis, test it, and evaluate results. Near the end of the first semester, FRI students choose a research project that is very open ended and design an experiment. Although instructional faculty—including Kimberlyn Nelson, teaching professor of biology, and Glenna Malcolm, assistant teaching professor of biology—and teaching assistants are available to provide guidance, there is a great deal of self-direction.

In the second semester, students pursue projects that contribute to the research programs of faculty labs. “Research stream” instructors like Anderson adapt what they are researching into projects that the students can complete in a semester.

“This is real research that no one else has done before,” said Anderson. “They discover things that were unknowns until that point.”

In typical cookie-cutter lab courses, the experiments normally work. They are doing something that somebody has already done and therefore should work, but they don’t have ownership of the results. They learn how to troubleshoot, but the activity is more based upon following a recipe and getting the “right” result.

The FRI has just completed its third year. While there are not enough data to determine whether it has an impact on retaining students in the Biology program, it is working in the sense that several FRI alumni have gone on to perform independent research with faculty, and it has inspired faculty to work to expand the offering to other departments. The Chemistry program is one strong candidate for a future FRI experience.

“In the FRI, things do not always work; sometimes they fail for various reasons,” said Anderson. “The students also see if they get the results that they expected to get, but sometimes they get results they don’t expect and that’s where the exciting science happens.”

Perhaps next semester the white board in the FRI lab will read “Science Happens.”

By Joel Ranck