While a recent report highlights the importance of laboratory experience for student engagement in scientific fields, professors in the sciences at BU agree labs that challenge students to think for themselves instead of following a set of instructions are those that are most beneficial.
The study, published Tuesday in the American Society for Microbiology’s online journal, stated 93 percent of first-year undergraduates in science fields who took part in a lab science decided to stick with their programs for another year, while only 82 percent of those who did not participate in a lab science continued into their second year.
“Labs can be useful to learning in different ways, but by-and-large, the difference between hearing someone tell you about something and doing it yourself is incredibly different in terms of building lasting memories,” said Elizabeth Co, a professor of biology at BU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The experience of discovery, rather than just being told, is huge.”
Though all labs are technically “hands-on,” those that challenge students to solve problems creatively benefit students more than those that are regimented, said CAS professor of biology Jelle Atema.
“In the typical undergraduate … labs, most of the time these [labs] are cookbook recipes that can be followed and have a predictable answer,” Atema said. “Of course, that is incredibly boring. It taught you some skills, but you can get the same skills with much more excitement if you make it [the lab] open-ended and put students in the driver’s seat.”
Atema requires juniors and seniors in his marine biology program to develop their own experiments, he said. His students create a proposal, set up testing equipment then collect and analyze data with careful guidance — without any step-by-step instruction.
“You write a final report, you give an oral presentation, you give a press release, and you are a young scientist,” Atema said. “The students are totally excited by it.”
Professors at BU are aiming to increase the amount of labs that offer students this degree of independence, Co said.
“Myself personally, as well as our department and educators as a whole, are trying to move away from ‘cookbook’ labs and toward more inquiry-based labs, where students are genuinely challenged to think for themselves, and where labs may not always turn out exactly the same way each time,” she said.
Fridrich said she found these “inquiry-based” labs more beneficial than other models.
“You have to use your own resources in your head that, sometimes, you don’t have to reach,” she said. “When you’re given [steps] one, two, three, it’s like following a recipe. Do you have to use your prior knowledge? Not really. You don’t really take out the tools in the shed.”
Kalina Fridrich, a CAS freshman majoring in mathematics, said she found lab components helpful in understanding scientific principles.
“You can sit down and solve problems in a book all day long, but do you ever really absorb it? Not until you physically see it [an experiment] or do it,” Fridrich said.
Momoko Kimura, a Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences sophomore studying human physiology, said she found step-by-step instruction helpful in her lab-based science classes.
“It [step-by-step instruction] definitely helps me understand the concept better, and also makes sure that the lab turns out okay,” she said. “It helps with the stress level of the courses sometimes and it makes a lab course a little bit easier.”
Kimura also said regimented instruction in a lab setting may hinder some students’ learning experience.
“It could be a disadvantage to people who want to go into research, because a lot of actual research has to come with … your ideas and your understanding of the concepts,” she said. “These [cookbook] labs are almost giving us what we need to know and what our end product is going to be. That’s not usually how research works.”
Atema said the creative, hands-on approach to lab experimentation not only benefits students, but BU as an institution as well.
“We are a research university,” Atema said. “If we want to get better at it [researching], and get even more famous, measure up to our big brothers across the river, well, what better way to do it than using this approach?”