Friday, April 17, 2015

Finis Origine Pendet

Where (and how) does one begin? 

Here I offer my philosophy regarding the assessment of student work, as well as an outline of our guided research course. 

Students begin this experiential course with quite varied backgrounds. Many have never stepped into a laboratory before, while others have spent an entire summer (or more) working in a professional lab. That said, it’s essential to grade them based on demonstrations of scholarship and academic growth rather than achievement alone. As they are each presented with an open-ended opportunity to develop themselves as scholars, beyond the limits of a normal classroom, I assess both their SCHOLASTIC ACHIEVEMENT as well as their GROWTH MINDSET. I determine growth mindset through evidence of their personal investment (degree to which they assume “ownership” of their project and active agency in their learning), fearlessness (how willing they are to grapple with difficult puzzles) and resilience (how well they respond to practical setbacks in the lab). 

In this selective honors program, students typically earn the following grades.

Highest achievement
Strongest growth mindset

A                                                                                                      A
Highest achievement                                       or                            High achievement
Strong growth mindset                                                                    Strongest growth mindset

B                                                                      or                             B
Highest achievement                                                                      High achievement
Weak growth mindset                                                                     Moderate to Strong growth mindset                                     

Moderate achievement
Moderate growth mindset   

Course Design
Three 10-week “terms” are roughly organized around the acquisition of the following skills:

Reading scientific literature
Learning basic lab skills
Understanding common biotechniques
Selecting model systems for experimentation
Designing a research proposal
Forming collaborations with professional scientists
Writing a formal scientific paper

Planning weekly schedules for experiments
Troubleshooting experiments
Taking useful notes
Collecting data
Writing original scientific paper 

Analyzing data
Drawing conclusions
Proposing future directions
Finalizing formal scientific paper
Presenting study in poster format

The end depends on the beginning, so...back to the first weeks of Fall!

WRITING ASSIGNMENT #1 Assigned on the first day of class, this offers a baseline of sorts, augmenting my understanding of where each student “is” in terms of their familiarity with primary scientific literature and experimentation. I assign two very different articles and ask students to write a brief essay on each, in which they summarize the following:
·      The overall questions addressed by the research group.
·      The experimental approaches taken to gain information.

·      Information learned through the study.

LAB EXERCISE #1  While they work on their first writing assignment as homework, we begin an experiment during class time. Spanning the first few weeks of the term, this experiment is designed to teach specific lab skills as well as the basics of scientific reporting. Students transfect mammalian cells with a GFP expression plasmid and determine transfection efficiency.

Introduction to Molecular Biology
·      Transform bacteria with GFP plasmid
·      Amplify & isolate DNA plasmid
·      Determine DNA concentration

Introduction to Tissue Culture
·      Plate cells for experiment
·      Transfect cells

·      Fluorescent microscopy and digital image capture  
(photo creds: Sean Burkitt, PA'14)

Experimental Design
After considering the factory-recommended protocol, students craft their own experiment in which they manipulate one variable (DNA concentration, amount of transfection reagent or cell density), with the intention of making an inference regarding its potential impact on transfection efficiency.

Formal Scientific Reporting
As a mechanism for learning how to write a formal scientific paper, students report their findings (in light of the various data collected by their classmates), revise multiple drafts and fine tune specific features included within each section, citations, style, etc. 

While working on this first lengthy experiment, students write a couple of short biotechniques essays as homework assignments. One of the essays, outlining the molecular basis of transformation & transfection, is incorporated into the introduction section of their lab report.

Next post….skills in hand, students propose research of their own!

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