Lisa Gilbert

Department of Geosciences & Marine Sciences, Williams College

Lisa Gilbert

Essay: "I'm good at science, now"

A recent student thanked me for showing her that she was "good at science, after all."

The undergraduates in my Oceanography course are successful students, however, many of them are non-science majors and enter declaring "I'm not good at science!". In this course, students are relieved of this excuse early in the course with an authentic, hands-on research experience. The confidence they gain doing a short project carries them to propose and complete independent field- or lab-based research projects within the same semester. Most of them do not have the specific knowledge for a 'junior thesis' in the sciences, but the early success with finishing a piece of research gives them confidence that propels them to start and complete their own original research.

I think there are a many things we can do as instructors to get students fully engaged in our topic, even when they enter a course with trepidations or little specific background. I spend significant effort early in the semester helping students attain (a) a personal connection to science and (b) a sense of accomplishment with research. Weeks 2 and 3 (while we happen to be at sea) are devoted to an intensive field project. Students work in shifts to measure and sample the waters we sail through. Tremendous amounts of data are generated. Pairs of students are given manageable subsets of data to describe and interpret. Students write papers and we have a poster session at the end of Week 3. Students feel ownership of their data subset as well as interest in the poster session, since they were part of data collection and processing for other groups.

In Weeks 4 and 5, students are taken to new (local) field environments and asked to propose many potential oceanography research questions. Because they know what it is like to DO science, they have the background to design feasible semester projects. After submitting a proposal in Week 6, they spend the next 10 weeks completing a project they have created and about which they express great ownership and pride.

These same students complete independent research in other subjects during the same semester. I don't have any data yet, but they report that the science project causes them the least anxiety, in part because they already have a model from early in the semester.

Some of these ideas were presented at the 2005 GSA Annual Meeting: Gilbert, L.A., 2005, Research-based learning in marine science at an interdisciplinary off-campus undergraduate program, Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, Vol. 37, No. 7, p. 446.