PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Laura J. Moore

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Laura Moore is Assistant Professor of Geology at Oberlin College.

The academic community embraces undergraduate research as a valuable learning experience and numerous institutions pride themselves on providing large numbers of students with a research experience during their undergraduate years. However, the traditionally adopted model of the “capstone” or “summer” undergraduate research experience falls short of providing a truly research-rich learning environment for all students. Instead, research activities are generally limited to a single research experience, and the benefits of participating in research activities are extended only to those students who are selected for participation, or who take the initiative to seek out a research experience.

Recently, I have been encouraged and inspired by examples of institutions and departments that have undertaken major curricular reform with the goal of providing a research-rich learning environment for all students. When armed with the vision and willingness to approach student learning in radical new ways, it is possible to provide an environment where all students can learn to articulate and seek an answer to a novel question. Including research, or at least research-like experiences, in introductory courses also has the potential to attract more students into STEM fields, since participation in research is becoming recognized as a successful way to recruit and retain students in the sciences.

Providing research experiences and opportunities for students to learn research skills at all levels of the STEM curriculum is a vital characteristic of a research-rich learning environment. In my vision, such an environment provides opportunities to develop research skills by thoughtfully weaving research and research-like experiences into courses and independent work so that students are gradually introduced to more advanced methods of scientific inquiry as their studies progress. Ideally, students in such an environment are learning not only how to articulate appropriate research questions, develop testable hypotheses, design experiments and use methods relevant to their major discipline, they are also learning how to evaluate and communicate scientific knowledge. Most importantly, integrating research into the curriculum need not be limited to laboratory exercises or final projects. Rather, in a research-rich learning environment, faculty members will be supported in their efforts to implement inquiry-based, collaborative learning techniques and to frame entire courses as a research experience. In such an environment, the independent research project becomes a different kind of capstone experience. No longer unfamiliar territory, a summer research project or a senior thesis becomes an opportunity to combine and hone already familiar skills and to participate more fully in the community of science.

There are departments and institutions already far along the path of implementing a research-rich learning environment for all students. For those who have not yet gone so far, there are challenges to be met. These may include convincing others that reform is worthwhile, finding time to devise a plan for curricular reform, having the courage to experiment with curricular change, and gaining access to the resources and administrative support necessary to implement changes. Clearly, initial cultivation of a true research-rich learning environment for all students is a slow process. But, as any faculty member who has enjoyed working with research students knows, having the capacity to provide all students with the benefits of participating in scientific research, and having the opportunity to work with extremely well prepared research students, are powerful rewards.