Teaching undergraduates to think like researchers-new approaches emerge from experimental teaching lab at UCSC

Scientific experiments commonly yield confusing or conflicting results, and part of a researcher's job is to incorporate such findings into a coherent framework that sheds some light on the subject under investigation. But this aspect of science rarely makes it into the classroom, where students spend a lot more time on established facts and concepts than on the messy process by which those facts and concepts get established.

That's unfortunate, because being able to evaluate conflicts and inconsistencies in scientific findings is a very useful skill for students to develop, according to Manuel Ares, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"Even if you're not a researcher, it is helpful to have a researcher's mentality when you are trying to evaluate all the conflicting information that comes at you these days from different sources," said Ares, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor.

"We want to create lifelong learners and thinkers who can take information that doesn't add up and make sense of it," he said.

Ares has developed a teaching exercise for undergraduate biology classes to give students a sense of how scientists proceed when valid data appear to conflict. In the course of the exercise, the students work together to resolve the apparent conflicts, while at the same time learning important concepts in molecular biology.

Ares described this teaching exercise and his experiences using it in the classroom at a symposium on science education on Sunday, February 20, at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.

The exercise involves laboratory experiments to test for interactions involving certain proteins in yeast. The students also do a literature search for related information and present their findings in class. Ares chose a system in which conflicts and inconsistencies are published in the literature, and as the students present their findings they use diagrams to develop a model of the system that incorporates all the results.

"In addition to teaching the students about protein-protein interactions, this exercise seems to give students a sense of the processes scientists use to incorporate individual findings into viable intellectual constructs for understanding how biological systems work," Ares said.

This is just one example of the novel approaches to teaching science that Ares is developing in an experimental undergraduate research laboratory he established at UC Santa Cruz in 2002 with support from the HHMI Professors program. He developed the protein interaction exercise during his work with students in the undergraduate research laboratory and subsequently tested and evaluated it in a regular biology class.

Another idea Ares has been exploring in his experimental teaching laboratory is how to cultivate interdisciplinary thinking in undergraduates. His thoughts on this subject can be found in a commentary published in the December 2004 issue of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

"The seeds of disciplinary entrenchment are sown in undergraduate classrooms," Ares wrote.

His undergraduate research laboratory brings together students from different majors to learn about genomics by carrying out their own research projects in small groups. The 1,200-square-foot teaching lab features a wet lab and specialized equipment for molecular biology, as well as a bench loaded with computer equipment, including a dedicated network server for bioinformatics work. Computer science and bioinformatics majors work together with molecular, cell, and developmental biology majors.

Ares said he hopes to break down the cultural barriers between undergraduate majors, encourage students to think outside the disciplinary boundaries of their majors, and prepare them to be effective collaborators in the cutting-edge interdisciplinary research of the future.

"In interdisciplinary research, it may be more important to know simply how to communicate with someone in another discipline than to know that discipline intimately," he said.


Note to reporters: You may contact Ares at (831) 459-4628 or ares@biology.ucsc.edu.