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Science Magazine Honors Biology Lab that Helps Students Design Research

Tammy Long got an idea of what science was all about when she went to Costa Rica as a college student.

“My instructors basically said, ‘There’s the rainforest. Go find something that you’d be interested in researching,’” she said. “That completely changed what I was going to do for a career. They had introduced me to inquiry.”

Such a free-form approach might not have worked for every student—Long, now an assistant professor in plant biology at Michigan State University, was someone who had gravitated toward studying nature even as a child growing up in southwest Michigan. Still, asking her to follow her own curiosity about the rainforest made a strong impact and is somewhat similar to the approach used in her Campus Trees biology lab module, which inspires students to develop their own research methods. The journal Science magazine has chosen Campus Trees to win the monthly Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction 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 freestanding “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 Campus Trees was published on 24 February.

“We’re trying to advance science education,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “This competition provides much-needed recognition to innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science of an article on each laboratory module will help guide educators around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed.”

Long developed Campus Trees with Sara Wyse, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Bethel University. At the start, Long’s goal was to restructure an introductory biology curriculum and redesign the lab portion of the class, which was taught by graduate teaching assistants. Wyse had begun researching the impact of alternative training on graduate teaching assistants, and so the two involved assistants in their project early on. At a 2008 “boot camp,” the teaching assistants agreed that biology lab should be about the process of science—how science answers questions by testing ideas and gathering and evaluating evidence—rather than a series of preplanned steps. They also agreed that the research undertaken had to be “real,” even if that meant outcomes would sometimes be unexpected, contradictory, or confusing.

“Instructors worry so much about having an experiment that’s going to work, but it’s important for students to come up with questions and methods of their own—and to live through some mistakes,” said Long. “That’s really where the richness of the learning comes in.”

These educational goals were emphasized as Long, Wyse, and five teaching assistants set out to develop Campus Trees, which became a semester-long study of phenology, or the patterns of recurrent natural events. Phenologic trends can be indicators of environmental change, including climate change. Taking the citizen science project known as the National Phenology Network as their model, they turned to the trees on the campus of Michigan State as their living laboratory.

Wanting to keep the science real and not wanting to prescribe a cookbook series of steps for the students in the lab, the developers were quickly confronted with the problem of how to produce consistent, reliable data. The conclusion was that the students themselves would develop their own methods for documenting the color change and dropping of the trees’ leaves, for example, designing the methods, testing them, and then evaluating their effectiveness.

As Long pointed out, quantifying color in a tree is not straightforward, requiring some system for keeping an ongoing evaluation consistent.

“The students came up with crazy ideas for assessing color,” Long said, referring to their innovative ideas of using a Twister spinner to randomly select which branches to sample, electronic color-pickers, and numeric RGB (red-green-blue) codes. “It was fantastic. They were so creative.”

Students don’t know at the beginning of the lab that multiple research teams are studying the same trees. When they discover this later in the process, they are asked to compare the techniques developed by the other teams to their own methods. Surprisingly, Long said, many students take this as a challenge, carefully considering which methods worked best for each type of research question being considered.

“Students learn firsthand about hypothesis development, data collection, and the value of sharing and maintaining databases,” said Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. “Multiple samplings of the same trees by different groups show students how slightly different methods can yield different results, highlighting the importance of tackling a research question with multiple approaches.”

Long says the Campus Trees lab module is as much intended to train students to be science-literate, to understand how science works, as it is a training tool for students who will actually become scientists. At the same time, and in keeping with the philosophy that the research be real, the module is meant to provide usable data.

“What I hope is that we can start engaging our huge introductory classes in inquiry,” she said, “and generate long-term data sets that can be used both for instruction and to serve the interests of researchers on campus.”

The IBI prize and corresponding essay in Science draw attention to the idea behind Campus Trees, a system of learning that Long feels is highly transferable and adaptable to other contexts and types of science research.

“I hope that winning this prize legitimizes the notion that we can use an inquiry approach to produce multiple benefits—to students, to their instructors, and to authentic research interests.”


Read the essay, “A Season for Inquiry: Investigating Phenology in Local Campus Trees,” by Tammy Long and Sara Wyse.

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