NEW YORK, December 17, 2007 – In the typical undergraduate science class, the teaching approach relies heavily on textbooks instead of science’s primary literature, academic papers written by professors and other researchers. The textbooks summarize what the research reports contain, explains Dr. Sally G. Hoskins, Professor of Biology at The City College of New York (CCNY).
“Because of the way science is generally taught, it doesn’t come across as creative or fun,” she says. “We’re doing a disservice to present science as a bunch of facts to be memorized.”
In collaboration with Dr. Leslie M. Stevens, a University of Texas geneticist, Professor Hoskins has devised a new instructional methodology that teaches students how to critically read scientific papers, and, at the same time, humanizes the scientific process. Through pre and post-testing, students who took her class demonstrated improved critical thinking skills and ability to read and analyze scientific literature, as well as more favorable attitudes toward science and scientists.
The method used in the class may be the first shown to increase both understanding of and interest in scientific research among undergraduate students. Notably, 64 percent of the students taking the class were members of minority groups traditionally underrepresented among students preparing for careers in science.
The program, known as C.R.E.A.T.E., was supported by a three-year $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and was the subject of a paper published in the July 2007 edition of the journal Genetics Education. C.R.E.A.T.E. is an acronym for the program’s steps: Consider, Read, Elucidate hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data and Think of the next Experiment.
The course was designed to help students deal with the “explosion of knowledge” in biology that has occurred in recent years. “We felt that rather than cover a large body of that knowledge we needed to find a method by which students could address any problem,” Professor Hoskins explains.
In her Biology 355 class, “Analysis of Scientific Literature,” students read through a sequence of papers produced by one lab over several years, with the summaries, titles and authors identities withheld. This puts students in the position of researchers, who have to interpret data as it is generated and consider the implications of their findings before moving on.
Students use novel C.R.E.A.T.E. tools, including concept mapping and cartooning, to break down the papers’ experiments into their component parts and then analyze and interpret the data, she notes. “Our goal is for them to work the data as if they had generated it themselves.”
Each section of the paper – introduction, results and methods and discussion – is presented in sequence. Students are taught to use concept mapping to diagram linkages between key concepts that they have defined in their own words. Working independently, they elucidate the hypotheses that the experiments were designed to address.
Class sessions focus on data analysis and are run like laboratory meetings. Students work in small groups to interpret the data and identify the key findings they would want included in the discussion section. Then, they compare their list of findings with what the authors actually included in the discussion sections of their articles.
Afterwards, each student is asked to make recommendations on what experiments should be done next. To simulate the peer-review process, these student-designed experiments are presented to “grant panels” composed of three or four students that decide which suggested experiments would get funded. The process is repeated with each subsequent article in the series.
Toward the conclusion of the class, the students were asked to submit questions to the actual authors of the papers. Student questions dealt with scientific, ethical and personal issues. For example, one student asked: “Did you ever wake up and just want to give up? How did you deal with it?”
Ten of the 20 authors who were queried provided replies. One author visited the class for an in-person interview that was videotaped. “We wanted students to view scientists as individuals with different motivations and goals,” Professor Hoskins explains. “It was especially important for our students to realize that their previous stereotypes of scientists as “antisocial” and as “geniuses” were inaccurate.”
Professors Hoskins and Stevens were assisted by Dr. Ross H. Nehm, former CCNY Assistant Professor of Education who now teaches at The Ohio State University, in using pre and post-course critical thinking tests to measure students’ improvements in ability to critically read and interpret data. The investigators also performed pre and post-course measurements of students’ ability to use concept mapping. To gauge students’ understanding of science and attitudes toward science and scientists, they conducted post-course oral interviews.
Improvements in skills were found among students in all three sections of the class. In addition, students self-reported increased confidence in their reading and analysis ability plus enhanced skills that could be applied in other science courses. They also exhibited improved understanding of the nature of science, greater personal engagement with science and more positive views of science and scientists.
Outside the classroom, Professors Hoskins and Stevens this fall conducted workshops to train instructors from 14 other institutions on using C.R.E.A.T.E. as part of their ongoing NSF-funded project. Earlier this year, Professor Hoskins presented the C.R.E.A.T.E. project at meetings conducted by the New York Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Sciences. In addition, she and Professor Stevens won the Society for Developmental Biology’s John Doctor Best Education Poster award at the Society’s annual meeting in June.
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