Science Prize Goes to Undergrad Course That Incorporates Faculty Research

VIDEO: In Biology 44Y, students learn how to do science at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve of Stanford University, using plant-pollinator-microbe interactions as a model system. [Credit: Eric Koziol]

A Stanford biology class that involves undergraduates in their instructors’ research and has been shown to engage students much more effectively than standard lab classes has been awarded the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).

“Teaching and research don’t have to be either-or,” says the Stanford assistant professor of biology Tadashi Fukami, who teaches the class. “Even if faculty professors are expected to be doing research and are really busy with that, they can do inquiry-based teaching combined with research in the area of Science that they are good at. That can be a great combination.”

Science’s IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about Stanford’s inquiry-based Biology 44Y class appears in the journal’s 29 March issue.

“We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”

Fukami was exposed to conventional “cookbook” labs, where students re-create experiments with known outcomes, in high school and college in Japan and was unimpressed. Luckily, he had a high school biology teacher who thought it was important for students to know the natural history of where they live. The teacher devoted a part of each class to teaching his students about the plants and wildlife in the environment around the school. Fukami, who grew up just outside of Tokyo but had loved exploring nature at his grandparents’ house in the country, felt his childhood curiosity reinvigorated.

“That reminded me of how much I liked being outside and catching insects when I was little,” he says.

Hired at Stanford in 2008, Fukami was intrigued by the idea of combining teaching and research so that they could be mutually beneficial, a concept advocated by Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning staff. Meanwhile, Stanford’s biology department had begun an effort to bring inquiry-based instruction—that is, curriculum involving real research—to its undergraduate classes. During that process, a survey of recent graduates showed that the cookbook-style lab classes were the department’s least popular classes.

“The classes were about following the manual, not creative or inspiring,” Fukami says.

Fukami and his colleagues initiated an inquiry-based class in which students could design their own experiments based on Fukami’s area of research—in this case, the ecological interactions between a species of flowering plant, hummingbirds and insect pollinators, and the microorganisms that inhabit the floral nectar of the plants and “hitchhike” from flower to flower on the pollinators. Interestingly, the biology department continued the traditional lab exercise classes for two years, as the new class was implemented.

Having the two types of classes running concurrently allowed researchers to compare the students in the two groups. They found that the students who engaged in authentic research were more comfortable making hypotheses, analyzing data and presenting results. The researchers also noted that the students in the new class were more interested in continuing basic science research, according to a paper that was published in the Journal of College Science Teaching. Also extremely important, the students were learning how scientific research really works.

“The students come to realize that science is a trial-and-error process,” says Fukami, “that it’s okay to have failure. They just have to keep working with the data and reformulate their questions.”

Such an understanding of the scientific process, Fukami says, is crucial to all students, not only those who will continue in biology. Many environmental, agricultural and medical issues facing every citizen, he says, require that understanding of how science works.

Toward the end of the class involving authentic research, Fukami says, the students were apt to engage in animated discussion, sometimes hashing out differences in the results they had gotten. “This gets them thinking about science as collaborative,” Fukami says. “Often you get better results if you critique each other.” Almost incidental to the overarching goal of allowing students to conduct real research and “feel” how science works, many of the student-designed experiments have yielded actual discoveries. For example, the students collected data on the relationship between nectar pH and microbial abundance, and those data were used in peer-reviewed papers and credited to the students, an accomplishment that Science Associate Editor Melissa McCartney credits to the authentic, hands-on nature of the class.

“The best way to learn is by doing,” says McCartney. “In this educational module, students are participating in experiments at the leading edge of the field and making real contributions to relevant and open-ended questions.”

As a recipient of the IBI prize, Fukami hopes that other university researchers will read his essay in Science and adopt similar approaches to their teaching. “You don’t have to sacrifice the quality of your instruction because of your research. You can combine the two,” he says. “My experience leaves me optimistic that inquiry-based instruction can become widespread through integration of teaching with faculty research programs.”
Read the essay, Integrating Inquiry-Based Teaching with Faculty Research,” by T. Fukami.


Learn more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.