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.