David Lopatto, a psychology professor at Grinnell College, has spent more than a decade assessing student learning from science research experiences. He is the author of the 2009 report Science in Solution: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning.
What does apprentice-based research do for students that typical classroom-and-lab learning can not?
Often, students are working on prepared labs where they know what the result is going to be. They may titrate something or mix a solution, but that’s not very engaging when you already know the outcome. But if you challenge students with a question for which nobody knows the answer, including the professor, they’re much more curious about it. It leads to learning where students are actively involved in the scientific process, as opposed to just hearing about it. They make mistakes, they start over, they have to troubleshoot when things don’t work out. That messy process turns out to be a much better learning experience than simply passively receiving information.
How can discovering new scientific knowledge affect students?
Students can collect some dirt, bring it into the laboratory, isolate a bacteriophage, and sequence its DNA. And sometimes it’s one that no one has ever seen before. The discovery isn’t necessarily momentous, but the students could go to a conference and be knowledgeable about a little piece of science. It’s their phage, and they can name this new organism after their school or themselves. There’s an incredibly strong sense of confidence and ownership that comes with that.
You argue that failure—which is common in apprentice-based research—doesn’t turn students off from science. Why?
My expectation, when I first starting asking students about their experiences, was that if a student spent 10 weeks doing something in the lab and it went bust, that they would be really discouraged. But students saw it differently. They often said things like, “We worked on a process for creating a compound, and it didn’t work. But that failure was informative, so we tried something else.” Failure wasn’t just failure. It was part of a larger process.
That perspective seems to have implications beyond science.
In some ways, the personal development that comes as a result of this type of research is more important than specific skills that they learn. We may all like to count the number biology Ph.D.s or doctors [who graduate from a program]. But when you give students this kind of science experience, they are more capable no matter where they end up. They build a higher tolerance for obstacles. The ability not to be discouraged, not to quit, and to use their creative skills to overcome problems generalizes to other areas that they may be unfamiliar with, whether that’s science or business or law. That kind of development prepares them for an almost infinite number of futures.