March 2010

Teaching “From Proposal to Publication”

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.

Tell us about your experience "teaching science the way you do science" in the comment section below.


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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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