Steve Asmus, Professor of Biology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, uses Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) techniques to help students in his Cell Biology lab reach beyond traditional lab experiences to become better prepared for the real world. Asmus was inspired to adapt techniques from the primary research literature to see if they could be used in his course.
His goal was for students to learn how to grow cells in culture and to learn specific microscopy techniques, but Asmus also wanted his students to incorporate the IBL approach, asking questions, developing hypotheses, and designing their own experiments.
He said the idea of IBL is not new, but some of the projects in primary literature often use such advanced techniques, equipment, and reagents that adapting them to a small undergraduate cell biology lab course might be challenging. He stated, “we’re taking the high-end techniques from primary literature and seeing if they could be adapted for use at Centre.” He admitted he wasn’t really sure it would work, but discovered it was possible with modifications.
In discussing the complexities of adapting the project from primary literature, Asmus stated, “this project is, over the course of multiple terms, trial and error.” There were times he thought, “I think this is going to work, let’s try a sample run;” and they would collect some data, but it wasn’t as successful as he had hoped, so he would tweak it and try something else the next year. He said this project has been part of summer and sabbatical research as well, where he had intensive times to try and experiment and work out the parameters for the project.
Students learning in this environment with Asmus are exposed to a fun, yet challenging method of conducting research and experiments that allows them the flexibility to ask questions, fail, and grow. Over the course of multi-week labs, students spend significant time learning a set of techniques, then perform a set of experiments, followed by learning a new set of techniques and conducting additional experiments. As they gather data, students are making their own hypotheses and determining what works, what doesn’t, and what they need to tweak or adjust to get the experiment to work. The project culminates in an extensive lab research paper using the results they collected.
Asmus indicated that students think this type of learning is both fun and engaging; and while they enjoy learning that things don’t always turn out how you hypothesize they will, it’s very satisfying when then do. Given parameters that keep the project structured, students are able to take risks and grow by creating their own experiments and follow the project through each stage. The increase in student engagement in lab learning environments such as these is evident in the final reports, but more so in the response graduates receive from future employers when they find out students have already learned cell culture techniques. IBL definitely prepares students for life-long learning.
When asked what recommendations Asmus had for others who wanted to incorporate IBL into their teaching, he stated, “be willing to make modifications, trial and error; be willing to take risks. Have a foundational experiment you know will work and tack on something that you haven't done before.”
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