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An Integrated Approach to Strengthening the Link Between Undergraduate Course Instruction and Students' Interests and Individuality

Research Summary

The overall goal of this project is to increase recruitment and retention of undergraduate students in science career pipelines by developing a novel education model called iScience, and implementing the best iScience practices in undergraduate course instructions. The aim is to improve undergraduate students’ understanding of science concepts and methodologies, and their ability to carry out scientific research by using students’ interests as the starting points to guide the content of the course.

The iScience model addresses a fundamental issue in science education:  The starting point of instruction is often course content instead of students’ interests or experiences. Our hypothesis is that, when students are actively engaged in investigating a subject they find interesting and relevant, in a supportive environment, they are motivated to learn and remain on the major/career track that best targets their interests, even when the subject is challenging. By using students’ interests as starting points to guide the content of the course, by emphasizing the individual experience and needs of the students, and by creating a supportive and communicative learning environment, iScience will strengthen the weak link between science course content and students’ interests and individuality.

Operating in tandem with traditional science curricula, we:

  • use students’ scientific interests as the starting and focal point of course instruction and provide links between course content and the students’ backgrounds and interests;
  • personalize students’ individual experiences through exploration via critical literature surveys and laboratory exploration;
  • model interdisciplinary research groups, a hallmark of American graduate education, in undergraduate courses by building a community of students with similar backgrounds and interests;
  • promote peer mentoring involving students from all levels of college in the same course;
  • improve their competencies in scientific research by building research skills early and throughout the college years; and
  • engage students to carry out investigations of their topics of interest in a research group that matches their interests.

The integrated, inquiry-based course involves all levels of undergraduate students, from freshmen to seniors, with the theme of the role of chemistry and biology in life and society. The course is a single class that spans the four-year undergraduate education; students may take up to one semester per year. First-time students attend lectures as well as presentations by other students, and choose an open-ended topic to research. The second time students take the course, they give a literature seminar on their chosen topic. The third time, they give a proposal seminar on how they will investigate their topic and resolve problems. The fourth time, they give a seminar to report the results of their investigations by writing a thesis or giving a research seminar. Students at all levels who are interested in similar topics are placed into subgroups to work together.

The sub-group serves as an informal mentoring center for younger, less-experienced students. Meeting weekly throughout the semester, the sub-group becomes a sounding board for ideas about how to carry out an individual research plan. Returning students (those who have taken our course before) share advice about the nature of their own research. They serve as a “matchmaker” for younger students, helping them to find a research group that best fits their interests. They also lead the team in group projects, modeling sound scientific thinking and effective collaboration. The sub-group is also the scaffold upon which skill-building activities rest. The activities that specifically target skills such as articulating questions and understanding scientific papers are conducted within the “sub-group”.

This course has been implemented in three stages. In stage 1, a small (~ 40 students) pilot course was developed and found effective (see a report in Science 318, 1872 – 1873 (2007)). In stage 2, several curriculum modules (small stand-alone education units that can be used in many courses), based on the model’s successful practices in stage 1, were implemented in larger (~250 students) gateway courses in general chemistry at UIUC. In stage 3, this course is being institutionalized as a required course for all chemistry majors (>400 students) in the chemistry department. We also plan to implement the curriculum modules in courses in math and biology departments.

Research in the Lu Lab

Lu’s research interests lie at the interface between chemistry and biology. His group is developing new chemical approaches to provide deeper insight into biological systems. At the same time, they take advantage of recently developed biological tools to advance many areas in chemistry. Specific areas of current interests include a) design and engineering of functional metalloproteins as environmentally benign catalysis in renewable energy generation and pharmaceuticals; b) Fundamental understanding of DNAzymes, or catalytic DNA, and their applications in environmental monitoring, medical diagnostics, and targeted drug delivery; and c) Employing principles from biology for directed assembly of nanomaterials and its applications in sensing, imaging, and catalysis. Research in his lab has resulted in more than 20 US and international patents as well as successful products in environmental monitoring (www.ANDalyze.com) and medical diagnostics (www.GlucoSentient.com).

As of May 2014