PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Bonnie K. Baxter

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Bonnies Baxter is Associate Professor of Biology at Westminster College.

What is your vision of a robust research-rich learning environment?

What does “research-rich” look like? It is easy to envision it in the thriving undergraduate research programs across the nation. Selected students, within their major, are engaging in sophisticated science. They are designing experiments, learning how to manage the literature and presenting their data. The lives of these students have certainly been enriched by research. But is a curriculum research-rich if it stops at the accelerated science students? A few chosen individuals benefit, and the breadth of student contributions is limited. “Rich” denotes wealth, and a program that exudes wealth in research opportunities must broaden its scope and must employ innovative design. In particular, a program must target each group of learners and pursue a research-incorporation approach that recognizes the needs of the particular population. Perhaps the traditional lumping of “majors” and “non-majors” does not allow for this assessment, and, therefore, does not enable effective reform. Would the needs of learners in non-science majors: History, Nursing, Business, and Education all be the same? Research-rich environments can facilitate learning of science only when the learners are understood.

Undergraduate Education majors have specific needs that can be fulfilled though research-rich activities. For example, future teachers (K-12) are one of the most significant groups of undergraduates with respect to the pedagogies they encounter. Countless studies demonstrate that teachers will teach a subject the way in which they were taught. Therefore, professors should be charged to model inquiry-based science for this population. This opportunity was a driving force that led to “the Great Salt Lake Project,” an NSF-DUE-funded project for which I served as primary investigator. With this award, we remodeled the required Science Methods courses at Westminster College for both future elementary and secondary teachers. One of the most innovative elements was a simple pairing of professors, myself from the Sciences Division partnered with a professor in the School of Education. Our goal was to provide research experiences (centered on the theme of Great Salt Lake) for our students. Following this, the students would design inquiry-based teaching units that evolved from their research projects. And finally, the students implemented these lessons in the classrooms of local schools. Thus our students engaged in the scientific process, developed curricula that reflected this process, and then they in turn engaged K-12 students in research. Coming full circle, from doing science to teaching it, was intended to reinforce this philosophy in their future classrooms. For those of us in undergraduate education, where our substrate is the product of earlier reactions, occurring in K–12 classrooms, we should care about being catalysts in the education of teachers.

Incorporating research in teacher’s courses broadens the impact as with each teacher, you can touch hundreds of K-12 students. With research, perhaps one size does not fit all. In the illustration above, the research-rich courses were designed to fit the needs of future teachers. How might a course for Honors students, for example, differ? Research-rich curricula can be tailored, but an assessment process, whereby the specific needs of the targeted learners are explored, must precede implementation. The largest barrier for implementation of this approach is a philosophical one for faculty as we are trained with the concept of “science” and “other.” “Other” represents a large community of scholars. It takes a kaleidoscopic vision to bring research to students in a manner that supports their future endeavors.