Title: An open-ended, inquiry-based approach to environmental microbiology
Author: Frank Caccavo, Jr.
Journal: The American Biology Teacher
Publication date: November-December 2011
Theme for Weeks 4 and 5: Project-based learning for undergraduate students
As an undergraduate student of Microbiology, most of my classes had a similar format: in addition to lectures, we had laboratories at least once a week where we explored techniques related to the weekly topics. These were self-contained (“cookbook”) lab exercises which were only meant to facilitate skill acquisition and familiarize us with the principles behind the science. This approach shifted when I became a graduate student and we began to tackle collaborative semester-long projects. Caccavo proposes that we follow this model when we teach undergraduate students, and gives a detailed report of his experience implementing this approach.
Student teams were encouraged to pick their own research topics. When they picked wastewater treatment, the instructor covered the content and took the students on a fieldtrip to the local plant: this gave students enough knowledge to be able to narrow down their research topic.
Students were introduced to the scientific method and basic laboratory techniques. Then, they collected literature on the topic so that they could get an idea of what has been done within the field, and think of which angles to pursue experimentally. Their next step was to submit a research proposal in order for them to “organize their thoughts, focus their efforts, and provide a structural framework for the execution of their experiment” (Caccavo, 2011).
At this point, students could finally begin their lab work! This was my favorite part of the learning experience, because undergraduate students often don’t realize that scientific work involves hours of work outside of the laboratory. In the end, as with any research project, they had to present their results to an audience via posters.
The project applies many of the NETS standards to the learning experience. Firstly, it facilitated and inspired student learning (NETS-T 1) because the instructor promoted a creative, collaborative environment that had students solving real-world problems. Students demonstrated they could explore a complex issue to produce original research (NETS-S 1, Creativity and Innovation). They developed research and information fluency (NETS-S 3) as they had to gather, evaluate and use scientific literature to plan their project. They improved their critical thinking, problem solving and decision making skills (NETS-S 4) since they were in charge of identifying the problem, developing appropriate questions, and planning and performing all experiments. This is all tied together by communication and collaboration (NETS-S 2).
Two more things make this project stand out for me. The first one is that the instructor is a supporter and not a director- the students are in charge of their own learning. The second one is that the project helped students decide whether science was something they wanted to pursue as a career or not. As Caccavo puts it, “the best way to learn science is by doing science” (2011), and students should get the chance to experience a real research environment firsthand.
Caccavo, F. (2011). An open-ended, inquiry-based approach to environmental microbiology. The American Biology Teacher, 73(9), 521-525. doi: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.9.4