March 2010

Teaching “From Proposal to Publication”


For more information

• The University of Montana’s Integrated Biological Science Courses Organized around Research Experience Project (IBSCORE)

• Wood, W. B. (2003) Inquiry-based Undergraduate Teaching in the Life Sciences at Large Research Universities: A Perspective on the Boyer Commission Report. Cell. Biol. Educ. 2, 112–116.

• Udovic, D., Morris, D., Dickman, A., Postlethwait, J., and Wetherwax, P. (2002) Workshop Biology: Demonstrating the Effectiveness of Active Learning in an Introductory Biology Course. Bioscience 52, 272–281.

• Wright, R., and Boggs, J. (2002) Learning Cell Biology as a Team: A Project-based Approach to Upper-Division Cell Biology. Cell. Biol. Educ. 1, 145–153.

There is no one way to teach science; what works in one setting may not work in another. In the past four or five years, there has been much talk about “teaching science the way you do science.” In a policy forum article published in the journal Science in 2004 (1), Jo Handelsman and co-authors wrote, “There is mounting evidence that supplementing or replacing lectures with active learning strategies and engaging students in discovery and scientific process improves learning and retention of knowledge.” Since then, many scientific societies have included sessions with similar titles in their annual meetings, but little has been written about how to translate this approach into formal courses. For a while now, it has been recognized that undergraduate research opportunities play a crucial role in undergraduate education, but only a few colleges and universities give their students real research experiences by requiring full-time, year long laboratory research and a senior thesis.

So, how do we “do science,” and what is a “real research” experience? And, how can we realistically teach science the way we do science in the context of a four-year undergraduate education?

Searching for Scientific Teaching

I recently Googled “How do we do science?” and found an interesting site that listed things we can do to teach children about science. I also Googled “What is real research?” and found another site that explained that research begins with questions, not answers. While both Web sites contained some information that was potentially useful, neither provided me with much satisfaction. So, I went to PubMed and tried various combinations of the terms I was looking for. I found some information about teaching medical and nursing school, but still no luck. Finally, I looked at two major education journals in molecular life sciences— CBE Life Sciences Education and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education — and found some decent answers.

Interestingly, during my searches, I was not able to find the Science article referred to at the beginning of this article. Even a PubMed search with the paper’s title turned up 54,943 results, which effectively buried the actual reference I was looking for. The only easy way for me to find the article was with an advanced search using the author’s name and the article’s title. My conclusion: It’s not easy to find the answers to the questions “How do we do science?” and “What is real research?” if you don’t know where to look.

Doing Science

So, how do we do science, and what is a real research experience?

1. The Question. 

Students need to learn that, to do science, they have to build on what they already know. Knowledge may come from an observation or from reading scientific literature. Either way, this knowledge leads to a question, and one of the first things that scientists do is find out whether anyone else has asked (and possibly answered) the question. If the question has been answered satisfactorily, the scientist moves on and lets his or her curiosity loose again. If it hasn’t been answered, then he or she develops a hypothesis and starts thinking of experiments to investigate the hypothesis.

2. Designing Experiments. 

In designing experiments, it is important that students understand the limitations of their approaches and how to interpret their data. They also should understand that writing a proposal is an integral part of doing science. In the “real” world of research, the proposal both convinces people that the scientist knows what he or she is talking about and allows him or her to get the resources necessary to do the experiments. If done right, proposal writing involves drafts, feedback and revisions. Most undergraduates, however, never get to do this in a meaningful way. Often you hear faculty advisers saying, “I don’t want them wasting their time writing a proposal when I need them to be in the lab doing experiments.”

3. Doing Experiments. 

Doing the experiments is, of course, an important part of the whole process, and, for undergraduates, it is an exciting part of their education which could act as motivation for further work in the sciences. A critical part of this is, of course, analyzing and interpreting the data appropriately. Depending on the experiment, this will involve statistical analysis, the use of a variety of computer programs and an understanding of the limitations of what the data can tell. Real data are the only type of data that can accomplish this— much of the “data” that we provide to students in the classroom as problem sets are not real data; instead, they are often simulated data designed to illustrate a point and not let a student struggle with the analysis and interpretation that is an integral part of research.

Once the experiments are finished and the data analyzed and interpreted, presenting the project is a very important part of the scientific process, and plays a central role in “doing science.” The time it takes to put together a good presentation or report is, in many ways, the counterpoint to putting together a good proposal. The ultimate “presentation” is publication in peer-reviewed literature. Increasingly, undergraduate students do put together poster presentations and occasionally are invited to give short talks at professional meetings, but this is a privilege reserved for a few students and not something that is incorporated into everyone’s educational experience. Very few undergraduates even get to write the first drafts of papers that will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals, despite the fact that such an activity would provide a tremendous education.

Teaching Real Science

Many of the things that are central to real research are not the things we are getting undergraduates to do. If we want to use “real” research in teaching and also “teach science the way we do science,” we need to radically rethink how we involve undergraduates in research activities and how we incorporate research activities into formal class work. We need to think creatively about how we can meaningfully incorporate primary literature into our courses and how we can engage students in hypothesis building and testing and proposal writing. Perhaps we could teach courses with titles like “From Proposal to Publication” to our first-year biology and chemistry students and focus on research skills rather than memorizing facts. Or, we could at least downplay memorization and introduce the facts in a research environment rather than classroom context. If we taught courses this way, our students would have a better chance of acquiring the skills essential to “real” research and a better understanding of how we “do science.”


1. Handelsman, J., Ebert-May, D., Beichner, R., Bruns, P., Chang, A., DeHaan, R., Gentile, J., Lauffer, S., Stewart, J., Tilghman, S. M., and Wood, W. B. (2004) Scientific Teaching. Science 304, 521–522.

J. Ellis Bell ( is professor of chemistry and chair of the biochemistry and molecular biology program at the University of Richmond. He is also chair of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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It is surprising to me that more R1 universities do not require a senior thesis project for their science majors, especially in the biochemistry and molecular biology departments. Our Department has had this requirement for at least 25 years and most of the students (even the premeds) seem to really appreciate getting the hands on research experience. About five years ago we instituted a proposal requirement which must be submitted to a committee prior to allowing students being able to actually commence their work. This also requires that the students must meet with their thesis adviser in advance and the topic of the thesis must be outlined and the student must become familiar with the general approaches followed in their laboratory. For many of our students, this requirement is not that taxing since they have already been working in that group prior to signing up for the thesis class. For those who have put off joining a research group, they must spend a great deal of time doing the background f



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