PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
What is your vision of a robust research-rich learning environment?
GOAL: All students have access to a research-rich learning environment that socializes them into the community of science.
“The results of this experiment are as expected.” Early in my career as an undergraduate professor, I often read this statement in student laboratory notebooks. Having recently completed graduate and post-graduate training, I struggled with the apparent unwillingness of the students to delve deeper into the science. Looking back at the laboratory exercises that generated this type of response, however, I realized that the lack of critical thinking was likely the result of my choosing an activity that did not engage the students in the process of science. As well designed as many stand-alone commercial lab activities are, they often provide students an opportunity only to physically perform a given scientific technique, not to think like a scientist.
The development of a research-rich learning environment has the immediate benefit of allowing science students to function more like scientists; in other words, to solve a problem as opposed to simply completing an activity with a predictable answer. The incorporation of research into the classroom can be accomplished on several levels ranging from the reading and analysis of primary scientific literature to hands-on research in the laboratory. At any level, a successful research-oriented program will (1) allow the students to question and discover rather than to merely validate a predetermined result and (2) engage the students in an active learning approach to understanding science. Ultimately, this approach will motivate students to move beyond the minimal desire to memorize facts and, instead, to pursue a deeper understanding of their area of interest. It is this pursuit that will socialize them into the community of science as they discover for themselves the intangibles that cannot be taught in a traditional lecture format.
Certainly obstacles exist along the path to a research-rich learning environment. Of course money, equipment and space are concerns. However, in my opinion, one of the greatest obstacles is the student attitude toward active learning. Many students resist the challenge to discover, preferring instead to simply have “the” answers provided for them. The need to cover a given amount of content presents another significant obstacle as the incorporation of scientific literature and research into a course necessarily takes time that would otherwise be devoted to a traditional, content-driven lecture. As professors, then, we need to develop mechanisms for integrating research and content. Importantly, we also need to demonstrate to our students the value of the research-based approach in our courses.