Occasional Paper I: What Works: A Research-Rich Environment

Shaping a New Educational Philosophy

Numerous reports over the past several years have documented serious problems confronting undergraduate science and mathematics, and the threats these problems pose for the future of our increasingly technological society. These reports attribute the problems to some basic conditions that exist, both internal and external to the educational community. Among the reasons cited for the current situation are:

  • The tension between research and teaching at the undergraduate level
  • the scarcity of programs which enable students to take an active role in their learning, through structured opportunities for hands-on, collaborative, investigative learning

Instead of addressing these problems by working to change the educational environment, we often fault students for their weak preparation and inability to learn, or for their lack of interest in the sciences and mathematics. For many of us, students are only an audience for a well-rehearsed and oft-performed lecture. They themselves have little opportunity to wrestle with real scientific problems, to ask hard questions, or to become excited about doing science.

However, recent reports are beginning to move beyond problems and point to successful undergraduate science and mathematics programs. Such efforts focus on cultivating a laboratory-rich environment for the students, based on an emerging educational philosophy in which the focus is on the learner as an active participant in his or her education.

The benefits of a research-rich environment for students are many.

Students are:

  • captured by the wonder of science
  • exposed to the process by which scientists construct knowledge, and start to think like scientists
  • equipped for productive careers and a meaningful life upon graduation

Faculty also benefits, as they:

  • develop a better appreciation of how students learn, and thus become more effective teachers
  • create a rich environment to support and stimulate their own research
  • are able to translate their research activities into learning experiences for students

This active-learner approach emphasizes the need to have s stronger bond between instruction and faculty research. Where research methods are employed in the classroom to engage interest, the faculty member’s research is energized. We believe what works is when the total environment is infused with opportunities for hands-on, collaborative, and investigative learning and when the distinction between research and teaching is blurred for students and faculty alike.