PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Barbara Lom

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Barbara Lom is Assistant Professor of Biology at Davidson College.

Undergraduate STEM education is being transformed at colleges and universities across the nation. As scientific knowledge expands at a rapid pace, it has become impossible to teach our students the full depth and breath of any scientific discipline. Consequently, undergraduate educators must design their courses to facilitate the development of the skills that students need to understand and analyze new scientific knowledge as it emerges. All scientific knowledge is a direct outcome of the scientific method; questions are posed, methods developed, experiments conducted, data analyzed, interpretations offered, and results communicated in multiple formats. The scientific method is a broadly applicable method of coming to understand a specific and carefully posed question. Because all citizens are influenced by advancements in technology, medicine, science, and engineering, all students (not just science majors) need to be personally experienced in the scientific method in order to become educated and responsible citizens, capable of understanding and critically analyzing the value of scientific knowledge as it emerges.

Ensuring that all undergraduates have opportunities for direct experience in the scientific method is obviously a challenge. A successful research-rich learning environment provides ample opportunities for students to engage in the scientific method using modern technology. The laboratory portion of undergraduate science courses provides an excellent starting place to develop research opportunities for undergraduates. Many initiatives by organizations such as NSF, NRC, PKAL, HHMI, and CUR have repeatedly reported that students learn science best by doing science. As a result, instructors are transforming their laboratory curriculum from traditional cookbook labs with predictable outcomes into inquiry-driven, open-ended research experiences for their students to participate in fully. For research experience to be available to all students, such curricular change must be incorporated within the introductory and nonmajors STEM curricula. My vision of a successful and robust undergraduate STEM program ensures that all students experience the research process wherein they learn to formulate scientific questions, practice lab skills using current technology, carry out experiments, analyze their data quantitatively, interpret their results, and communicate their results to an audience throughout all levels of the curriculum. Since most undergraduates are not science majors, the only practical opportunity for many students to experience the scientific method will come in an introductory or non-majors science course. After the introductory courses, research opportunities can subsequently be expanded in upper-level courses, methods courses, and independent research opportunities for those students with stronger interests in STEM.

To achieve a research-rich learning environment for all students requires investment by the institutions, departments, faculty, and students. Research is an endeavor that requires both significant time and money, commodities that are in short supply and are allocated with care. Institutions must find creative ways to provide and sustain modern and engaging facilities equipped with current technology and to ensure reasonable student-faculty ratios in the labs. Departments place their most talented teachers into introductory and non-major courses and invest in the expendable expenses necessary to make research happen at all levels of the curriculum. Faculty must maintain connections with other scientists and educators in order to provide their students with current information, identify teaching strategies that work best, foster creative research-based courses, and sustain their enthusiasm for their role as educators.