Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Promoting a Growth Mindset Through Guided Research

What do kids need in place before starting a guided research project? Solid fundamentals and activated curiosity. Any advanced (AP-ish) course introducing molecular mechanisms that regulate biological processes will suffice. They need “just enough” knowledge to start a project and can gain all the depth they'll need along the way…


                 …AS LONG AS THEY ARE ACTIVATED!!!

How do students become activated and remain activated, sustainably, through the ups and downs of laboratory research? It’s all about the spirit of the endeavor and how their research efforts are framed at the very beginning.

In my last post, Finis Origine Pendet, I outlined our research course and detailed the instructional laboratory exercises that take place during our first few weeks together.

Here, I offer tips for promoting a growth mindset in the lab.

I.  Activate Curiosity

Encourage your students to assume ownership of their projects from the get go. Embrace your role as "knowledge coach" by asking them a series of guide questions and giving them ample time to engage in personal reflection and exploratory research.

·      What areas covered in your previous biology classes have intrigued you the most?

·      Is there any one topic – a biological process, system or disease – that you would like to explore in greater depth?

·      Remember! This is a chance for you to become an expert in something.
      So…what floats your boat?

Google searches are wonderfully generative at the beginning and offer great opportunities for you to critique the strength and validity of different primary sources with your students. Steer them towards sites maintained by foundations, national institutes, databases and consortia, hospitals, biotech companies and academic labs.

Once they have a general topic in mind, they can begin searching for relevant academic literature through Pubmed. Suggest that they start with reviews before moving on to research articles. This will give them a general overview of a particular field without bogging them down in too much jargon. Again, guiding questions from you - their knowledge coach - will help them greatly as they work their way through a sea of scientific literature.

·      What types of questions are being asked in this field?

·      What model systems are frequently employed? 

·      What open questions are currently driving research efforts?

·      Do any of these questions spark a durable interest (enough to fuel several months of research)?
Or should you keep looking?  

II.  Require Novelty

A little novelty can go a very long way!

Novelty, in my opinion, is the whole thing. It’s simply got to be real to matter. Since ownership and agency are necessary for activating curiosity, students need to design original studies for significant levels of investment - and learning - to occur.

Initiate a discussion in which you address the merits of doing novel work and define for them “how much is enough.” The notion of proposing a novel study can be extremely exciting for some students, especially those who already envision themselves winning a Nobel Prize before 30(!) For others it can provoke a great deal of anxiety. Some guiding questions will help them all navigate this new and strange terrain.

·      What type of experiment makes a very meaningful contribution to our collective understanding of biology? A somewhat meaningful contribution? No contribution?

·      Why is it important to consider the potential value of our work during the earliest stages of project design? What types of resources might you use for your study?  Will your work involve model organisms of any kind? Is there an ethical stance that might help guide your decisions throughout this study? Of course, as the teacher, you will enforce strict rules and regulations when governing the use of any living organisms. That being said, it’s most useful to have students answer these questions for themselves wherever possible.

·      How might you use an existing published study as a launch pad for your own related work?

Useful Example:  Through her literature search, Ella learns that a certain molecular inhibitor silences Cool Kinase 3, effectively decreasing proliferation in cervical cancer cells. She is curious to know whether the inhibitor influences glioma cells in a similar way. This question alone is novel enough for her to make a meaningful contribution. She might first do some literature research or expression analysis to learn whether Cool Kinase 3 is activated in her glioma cell line. That could potentially direct her to a whole set of studies relating the CK3 signaling pathway to brain cancer, which might spark more ideas for her project. Since she would invariably need to test a range of inhibitor concentrations, the initial reference would also help direct her as she selects a reasonable range for her preliminary experiments, saving both time and resources. Ella could propose all this in one or two well-crafted specific aims within her project proposal.

Useful Example Cont'd:  Ella’s curiosity might be so activated that she decides to expand her research further, through exploration of related questions. She might decide to measure the ratio of proliferating to differentiating cells - or to test the potential effect of her inhibitor on an entirely different cellular behavior in glioma cells, such as migration.

Ella’s very first question, which was modeled heavily off a "launch pad" study, will ultimately serve many purposes. Most importantly, by activating her curiosity, this initial question will inspire her to move out of her comfort zone. By the time she finishes her study, whether her experiments have “worked” or not, Ella will have experienced and learned the following:

·      How to read and extract information from scientific articles.

·      How to draft a research proposal including background, rationale & specific aims.

·      How to consider multiple experimental approaches.
*This requires a series of brief but frequent one-on-one conferences with the teacher.

·      How to troubleshoot experiments and to change course when necessary.

·      How to contact and potentially collaborate with professionals working in the broader scientific community.

III.  Choose Your Playing Field

Pick one or two model systems you like, and keep them running in your lab year to year. Both you and your students will benefit from working within defined, reliable experimental systems, and you can always scale up in the future. The advantages of this approach are myriad, from conserving perishable reagents to encouraging practical collaborations among students. 
You will be able to implement the See One, Do One, Teach One method to teach daily lab skills such as pouring agar plates, picking worms or transfecting cells most efficiently. AND this method will motivate your youngsters to adopt good habits as far as lab notebooks are concerned(!) While most of them will eventually take somewhat decent notes, it happens a whole lot faster when they know they’ll soon be teaching a classmate the ins and outs of that protocol they're learning.

In our lab, we use mammalian cell cultures, C. elegans, bacteria and daphnia for most student projects. The best news is that model systems can be chosen according to your budget, allowing schools to experiment with pilot research offerings without breaking the bank. And teachers can begin with a simple experimental model such as bacteria, deciding to add a new model periodically or choosing to iterate their curriculum within a single system.

In future posts, I will embed links to resources that will help you maximize the funds allocated to your course. Friendly biotech companies offering huge discounts on antibodies –THANK YOU SANTA CRUZ BIOTECH!– or free reagents – THANK YOU PEPROTECH! – for use in high school and college level courses will become your new best friends. And consortia and other academic centers offering resources for a nominal fee may provide the backbone of your program. Stay tuned!

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