Developing Inquiry Skills

Since 2005, the Hughes Science Pipeline Project (HSPP) has supported the Research Apprenticeship Seminar (RAS) with the goal of increasing student participation in scientific research early in their college careers. This year-long seminar introduces incoming students to Barnard's science research culture as soon as they arrive on campus; the seminar includes two month-long rotations shadowing older students (usually HSPP-funded research interns) in Barnard faculty labs. The seminar enrolls fifteen to seventeen students each year. Assessment from course evaluations shows that lab rotations are the most popular RAS feature because they provide firsthand experience of science research in different departments. The apprenticeships also provide more support for faculty mentors and the students being shadowed as they carry out their research projects. In fall 2012, Barnard institutionalized the RAS as part of the biology curriculum; although it was initiated with HHMI support, the seminar is now supported by operating funds.

In 2013, Barnard instituted the Research Methods Seminar, co-taught by faculty from biology and chemistry. Open to sophomores enrolled in mid-level science laboratory courses, the seminar prepares students for work in a research lab, either on-campus or off-campus. Seminar discussions focus on searching the scientific literature, defining research hypotheses, laboratory safety, maintaining accurate data records, the display and interpretation of results, the presentation of research in oral and written formats, and scientific ethics. Instructors assist the students with lab placements, and support from HHMI allows each participant to attend a regional or national scientific meeting.

The Barnard Biology department initiated the Manduca Functional Genomics Curriculum in 2008 (described below under Fostering Integrative or Interdisciplinary Learning). Biology faculty developed an innovative set of student-defined experimental studies that thread through five existing courses and student research. Students have used bioinformatics to identify chemosensory gene families, molecular techniques to test gene structure and expression, developed functional assays, and tested the physiological role of chemosensory receptors. The objective of the curriculum is to provide students with authentic research experiences in laboratory courses and mentored research through the genetic analysis of chemoreception in tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) larvae.

Since the inception of the Manduca project, faculty have introduced student-defined experimental studies into laboratory courses and individual research projects. More than 1,000 students have completed lab courses involving Manduca research. Over forty-five students have conducted thirty-seven research projects on Manduca, including research interns, research apprentices, and ICP research interns. The success of the Manduca curriculum is apparent in the enthusiastic comments on course evaluations and the fact that it still generates excitement among the biology majors. The curriculum has allowed students in five lab courses (Introduction to Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, Molecular Biology, and Animal Physiology) to design and execute real experiments with uncertain outcomes. Of these students, twenty-nine have co-authored peer reviewed papers. Further, the Manduca curriculum has fostered numerous collaborations across faculty within the Biology Department. More generally, it has fueled an effort to revise how we approach all of our teaching labs. The success of this program has contributed significantly to building an integrative research culture on campus.

Even before the development of the Manduca curriculum, all middle and upper level laboratory courses in Barnard's Biology Department include an authentic research component. Students engage in individual or group projects in which they define hypotheses, design experiments, collect and analyze data, and prepare written reports on their work. In many courses, students make oral presentations about their research plan before beginning their projects and again once the results are available. These activities model the work conducted by research scientists, providing our students with skills that enable them to hit the ground running when they enter doctoral or professional studies. Engaging in the entire process of scientific inquiry also makes them very desirable candidates for research internships (both on- and off-campus) and for graduate programs. With support from the HSPP, the Biology Department has also enhanced these laboratory courses with a common approach to data handling and statistical analysis. The department encourages students to use SPSS for the display and analysis of data generated in laboratory courses and in research. The Student User Guide for SPSS introduces students to the program's capabilities in several courses. Moreover, in chemistry, the HSPP funded the development of student user manuals for the department's NMR spectrometer; students use the manuals in both course-based and apprentice-based research experiences.

The Research Internship Program helps students to develop their inquiry skills by immersing them in all stages of an extended, authentic research project, from hypothesis development to meeting presentation and publication. Since 1992, this program has supported an average of fourteen internships annually, with each intern receiving a stipend and a budget for supplies from the HHMI award plus in-kind housing from Barnard for ten weeks of summer research. The interns continue to work for academic credit for the following two semesters and present their work at the annual Student Research Symposium. Written student evaluations (completed at the end of the year-long research experience) reveal that the program helped interns acquire new technical and analytical competencies, as well as the skills necessary to develop research plans, organize data, and collaborate with a team while working somewhat independently. Some expressed surprise at their ability to overcome obstacles and solve problems; the majority say that hands-on laboratory experiences enhanced their positive views of scientific research.

Extensive data on longer-term outcomes, such as participants' additional undergraduate research experience and their postgraduate educational pursuits and plans, reveals that this initiative has proved consistently effective in meeting its objective. The vast majority of past interns have pursued graduate study or work in science. Interns have also amassed an impressive record of publications and presentations with their faculty mentors. Students in the HSPP-sponsored Research Internship Program have also participated in the summer and academic year Surveys of Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE II & III); the results of both surveys largely confirm the internal evaluations, with annual results that are positive, and remarkably consistent. These various evaluation instruments confirm that apprentice-based research experiences generate greater learning gains and greater student interest than traditional laboratory courses do. In response to these assessments, Barnard's Biology Department has boosted both the content and the credits awarded for the seminar in which student researchers enroll. Moreover, students may now use two semesters of research in lieu of two traditional laboratory courses in fulfillment of their major requirements.