Coordinating Laboratory Courses Across Engineering And Science Curricula

Kenneth Cox, Janice Bordeaux, David Caprette, Beth Beason, Ann Saterbak
2004 Annual Conference Proceedings   unpublished
An emphasis on discipline-specific content in laboratories in higher education can lead engineering and science students to perceive an experience in one course as irrelevant to work in other disciplines, and often even to subsequent course work within the same discipline. This compartmentalized approach compromises the progressive advancement of laboratory skills and acquisition of problem-solving capabilities. In order to address this issue, instructors for laboratory courses in
more » ... , Chemical Engineering, Physics, Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Chemistry, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University have met regularly to discuss how to develop scientifically literate graduates who build upon prior laboratory experience as students advance through their programs. Discussions have led to several cross-disciplinary initiatives. Twenty common teaching/learning objectives that transcend the discipline-specific goals of individual courses, departments, and majors were identified. Major categories of teaching objectives include: basic laboratory skills, communication and record keeping, maturity and responsibility, context, and integration and application of knowledge. Examples of teaching objectives include "the ability to measure and report uncertain quantities with appropriate precision" and "the ability to write effectively in appropriate style and depth." Next, all instructors analyzed the emphasis on each of the 20 core teaching objectives in their laboratory courses. To measure student progress toward the teaching objectives, competency standards were developed. This coordinated effort has enabled instructors to target explicit shifts in emphasis from more basic to refined skills as students move through a sequence of laboratory courses. Student self-evaluations and instructor evaluations have been developed from the core teaching objectives and have been implemented during the 2002-2004 academic years. This collaboration and the resulting assessment tools have enhanced existing outcome assessment methods that are contributing to ABET accredited degree programs at Rice University. One key benefit of this effort has been the increased communication among the instructors for the existing laboratory courses. Cooperation among laboratory instructors has led to the development of a plan for continuous adaptation and change, aimed at coordinating laboratory courses in the science and engineering departments. Efforts to date have not required the addition of new courses or major changes to existing courses; thus, the costs for this type of effort are not significant, making this approach to coordination and reform attractive for many schools across the nation. This presentation covers a three-year ongoing effort at Rice University, the usefulness of the student self-evaluations and instructor evaluations, success and struggles of the group of laboratory instructors, future directions, and tips for coordinating such activities at your university. Motivation Traditionally, science and engineering departments are independently responsible for designing and teaching undergraduate laboratory courses. Typically, laboratory protocols and entire laboratory courses are developed and taught without input from other departments and even without coordination with other laboratory courses within a department. Although different departments such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Chemical Engineering, and Bioengineering share many of the same students, regular communication on curriculum matters among personnel who are responsible for laboratory education is uncommon. Consequently, the resulting laboratory curricula contain inconsistencies, contradictions, gaps, and redundancies. In addition, students often fail to build their problem-solving skills as they move through laboratory courses. During the summer of 2001, instructors for more than thirty laboratory courses in Bioengineering, Chemical Engineering, Physics, Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Chemistry, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University began to meet to discuss why their talented undergraduates were underachieving in laboratory courses. Many of the instructors taught students in two or more major programs. In discussing our courses, we began to discover how many common frustrations the group members shared. One significant area of frustration was student compartmentalization -which we define as the failure of a student to transfer learning from one course or experience to another [1-2]. For example, students cannot prepare biological buffers in a junior level Bioscience laboratory even though they completed a very similar experiment in the Organic Chemistry lab one year earlier. Students frequently claim not to have been exposed to a particular concept or technique, when in fact the material was given significant emphasis in an earlier required course. Another example is correctly applying a statistical technique learned in one course to a different data set in another course. We believe that compartmentalization is partly the result of poor teaching and poor learning skills, and partly the result of student attitudes. In terms of teaching, we reflected that without coordination, it is nearly impossible to "raise the bar" as students progress through the science and engineering curricula. Without relevant context, students cannot appreciate the value of the generic skills that they are being taught and are unaware if or how they will use them in the future. We also acknowledged that grading of our laboratory courses could lead students to focus on content-specific goals (e.g. sterile technique for maintaining mammalian cells, operating a mass spectrometer) rather than generic capabilities (e.g. attention to detail, trouble-shooting complex equipment). The incorporation of many laboratory courses into a "parent" lecture course (especially freshman courses), to which the laboratory grade makes a relatively minor contribution, does not help the situation. We found ourselves re-teaching generic skills such as graphing, precision, and technical
doi:10.18260/1-2--13928 fatcat:5vwyrr3nandp3emryx66xlyxxq