PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Sarah Blank

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Sarah Blank is Assistant Professor of Biology at Berea College.

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

Providing all students with access to a research-rich learning environment is the ongoing challenge of science education at all levels. The value of giving students an opportunity to experientially learn along side the traditional learning through lecture has been realized for years; however the balance between these two teaching styles has varied over the years and has varied depending upon student level, the comfort level and teaching philosophy of the instructor, and resources available. Over the past fifteen years there has been increasing pressure to lecture less providing more time for students to learn through experiential exercises. Many colleges and universities have answered the challenge by increasing the focus on the scientific method by providing undergraduate research opportunities for students in classroom settings and by encouraging independent research opportunities. These research opportunities do not come without a time and financial cost. As research-rich environments increase in the college forum, we as scientists must challenge ourselves to help promote and stimulate a research-rich environment for all students of all socioeconomic levels not only at the college level but also at the primary and secondary education levels.

The national trend to teach students how to do science through greater exposure to the scientific method and increased opportunities for research led the biology faculty at Berea College to modify many of their courses from introductory biology courses (Modern Biology and Zoology) through sophomore and senior level courses including Human Physiology, Developmental Biology, Parasitology, Microbiology, Genetics and Cell and Molecular Biology to include such exposure. It is essential that research-rich environments are provided for students at all levels and that the responsibility and expectation of the student in dealing with research projects increase with years of experience. It follows then that individuals within a department must cooperate in designing a coherent curriculum that student skills are sequentially increased and reinforced from freshman to senior years. In the introductory course students are given opportunities to learn basic laboratory techniques and follow the scientific method through laboratory exercises. Students are also responsible for collecting and interpreting data and learning basic graphing skills. By the second semester, students are expected to work in groups to design an eight week zoology research project. The projects in this course are generally simple, but the scientific method is emphasized and students are required to review primary papers, collect and analyze data, and report data in the form of a poster presentation. Student projects increase in complexity and the amount of instructor guidance decreases as the students move through the curriculum allowing students to gain confidence in their developing skills. Seniors in Cell and Molecular Biology are treated much like first year graduate students and those which are successful in this curriculum are prepared to enter graduate research programs. The program at Berea has been overwhelmingly successful as there has been an increase in student interest in research careers and an increase in acceptance of the students to prestigious graduate research programs.

The increased research-rich environment at Berea has been deliberate and successful, but the faculty continue to wrestle with the increased demands placed upon their time and budget by this type of curriculum. Each of these courses many have from four to ten group research projects proceeding simultaneously. Time to design, perform, and report research data must be allocated in the course schedule. It follows that some material/labs once covered in these courses must be eliminated from the schedule or covered in new creative ways within the context of research projects and/or other laboratory exercises. The struggle for a balance between fact-based and skill-based learning is not insignificant. Time demands are also required of the faculty member to mentor each of these groups through the trials of a group research project. Providing supplies, equipment, and facilities for students to perform research projects in each of these courses requires a significant financial burden that the institution must support. The model of a research-rich environment that Berea has implemented might be improved by requiring each senior student to design and carry out a year long independent research project. However, time demands on faculty and the financial commitment required makes this proposal too costly.

The success of this type of research-rich curriculum is dependent upon cooperation and communication between faculty members of the department. Even though increasing research opportunities is expensive the payoff in student success is worth the effort. I believe that all students exposed to research-rich curricula will be better able to integrate scientific information. This gives the student the ability to analyze novel scientific questions and greater capabilities of genuine creativity in dealing with possible solutions to scientific problems. The development of these skills is becoming increasingly important as the influence of science and technology on society becomes more pronounced. We have just begun the journey to improve science education by increasing access to research-rich environments at the college level, but we should extend these efforts by finding creative ways to bridge the gap between secondary and higher education.