Course aims to better engage first-year biology students

March 29, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Twenty-one Purdue University undergraduates are experiencing a new way of learning biology as part of an effort to better engage students, improve critical thinking skills and improve retention rates in biological sciences.

Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, self-selecting, first-year biology majors have taken part in an inquiry-based instruction introductory course over the past two years that integrates lab research with traditional coursework.

"One of the things we want to do is get the students early and get them exposed to the process of science," said Stephanie Gardner, a continuing lecturer in biological sciences. "That includes learning how to design experiments, how to carry them out, how to deal with the data they acquire and how to communicate their data. We're hoping this model will get students excited about science and teach them what it is and how we come to learn things instead of just telling them. This is what we know.'"

Gardner is co-author of the essay "Adapting to Osmotic Stress and the Process of Science," along with Brittany Gasper, Dennis Minchella, Gabriela Weaver and Laszlo Csonka. The essay details the project and will be published in Friday's (March 30) issue of the journal Science. Thirty-two students have previously completed the course over the past two years.

Retaining first-year science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors is a problem at universities across the nation, Gardner said. Only 40 percent of freshmen STEM students nationally finish the major, according to a 2012 President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report.

Involving students in hands-on research could help retain a higher percentage and inspire a larger proportion of students, Gardner said. Multiple methods are used to gauge the course's success.

Adapting an idea from Purdue professor Laszlo Csonka's lab, students studied mutations that alter the regulation of a protein in salmonella.

The research-based class allows students to learn complicated topics, such as bacterial genetics, DNA sequencing and bioinformatic analysis, through simple and inexpensive techniques.

"We've been able to adapt this type of class to a couple of different topics," Gardner said. "There has been a move to get this trickled down to the high school level and get the students coming in already exposed to these types of experiences."

Gardner recommends keeping class size to 21 students and in groups of three to ensure that each student engages in class activities. A unique feature of the experiments that students perform in class is that they produce novel outcomes that contribute to the research project of a Purdue professor.

As in traditional research, not every avenue produces usable results, therefore, students are graded on the quality of their thought and method, based on objective evaluation of lab notebooks, regardless of whether they obtained novel mutations.

In order to compare this course to traditional teaching methods, students were given surveys before taking the course, followed by another at the conclusion.

"Surveys revealed that students recognized that they were involved in the process of discovery with a positive impact on their sense of confidence and an interest in conducting scientific research," Gardner said.

The Critical Thinking Assessment Test is administered to students to quantify the development of critical thinking skills, which led to higher scores at the end of the semester than the beginning.

Students will continue to be monitored for academic performance and course choices to gauge success of the course. 

"We're trying to see if this course has some long-term impact on the students and to see if they are more likely to persist in science and stay in the major," Gardner said. "There won't be one thing to fix the problem, but this can be the first step in the right direction."

Writer: Brian Peloza, 765-494-2081,

Source: Stephanie Gardner, 765-496-2936,

Related websites:
Purdue Biological Sciences