February 28, 2005
Teaching undergraduates to think like researchers:
New approaches emerge from experimental teaching lab
By Tim Stephens
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.
Professor Manuel Ares works with students in his undergraduate
teaching laboratory. Photo:
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 UCSC.
"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
"We want to create lifelong learners and thinkers who
can take information that doesn't add up and make sense of it,"
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
Ares described this teaching exercise and his experiences using
it in the classroom at a symposium on science education this
month 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 UCSC 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.
Return to Front Page