Article 1: Project-based learning for undergraduate students

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.

Students completing a lab experiment

Image source: University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, from

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 Teacher73(9), 521-525. doi: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.9.4

About Lily F.M.

Graduate student trying to learn as much as I can!

2 responses to “Article 1: Project-based learning for undergraduate students

  1. Lily,

    You discuss how “Caccavo proposes that we follow this [project-based] model when we teach undergraduate students…” I have to say, it was refreshing to have a blog post about this topic, as I sometimes question my project-based lessons. The students love them, but I have learned though that sometimes they are not as successful of a tool as others depending on the group of students. My honors students will create wildly successful projects that are mostly self-guided, while my less motivated students may not complete them without much guidance.

    You say that what is great about this type of learning is “that the instructor is a supporter and not a director- the students are in charge of their own learning.” I agree that it is wonderful to see students take ownership of their learning and find success that is not directed by the teacher. However, I do struggle to find a way to make this type of teaching work for all students. I guess that’s why it is one way of so many; not every student learns the same way!


  2. Jan Rue


    Your article is interesting in how it sets up project based learning. Though I am not familiar with Microbiology, I was able to get a good sense of what the author was discussing. I agree with you on the different approach to teaching the scientific process to undergrads is better. Working collaborative in teams is a great way to learn, explore and expand student’s knowledge in their given field of study. Also having hands-on, real world experience as in going to a waste treatment plant, made the process interesting and the students’ were able to engage in the process of learning at a higher level. They gathered prior knowledge in order to even know what the questions could be, making more sense than the lecture, reading, and lab work approach. As you said, students should get to experience real research firsthand. It makes me remember my brother’s experience as an undergrad. He was planning on becoming a lawyer until he had to write a brief. He knew it was something he didn’t like, or want to do the rest of his life and changed his major. I wonder sometimes about having undergrads who are studying to be teachers, actually in classroom situations before the student teaching process? I also agree with your thoughts about the instructor being a “supporter and not a director”. I believe at the under graduate level this is more to what real life work should be like. Start getting students ready to transition into the world now and allow them to use their critical thinking process.


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