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.

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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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