A paper-based approach to undergraduate biology

September 23, 2012

My lab website has been live for almost three months, but I haven’t blogged nearly enough about my teaching experiences and perspectives as I would have liked. That all changes starting now. (It helps that the summer is over, and the Fall semester is in full swing). Building on my statement of teaching philosophy, which has been part of my application packages for the academic job search, I want to describe in greater detail a paper-based approach to undergraduate biology instruction.


As a Lewis-Sigler Fellow at Princeton, I’ve been fortunate to take part of grand pedagogical experiment called the Integrated Sciences Curriculum (ISC), though some would call it a return to olden times, before the de facto premed track engulfed undergraduate biology whole. This slide from applied quantitative reasoning toward cartoon models and rote memorization is coming home to roost; curricula like ISC aim to reverse the trend. In a nutshell, the goal of ISC is to reconstitute a separate biology track with calculus and probability theory at the fore. Obviously, this means a much smaller cohort of undergraduates  — n=20 by the sophomore year — who actually want to be card-carrying scientists when they grow up. Layer on top of that quantitative foundation a generous helping of computer science know-how, mostly in the form of MatLab proficiency, and voilà: Integrated Science!


Since 2010, I’ve been lead preceptor – that’s Princeton-speak for teaching assistant – for the yearlong sophomore bio course ISC235/236. From the outset, I knew I wanted to experiment with the precept form. (Apologies again: precept is Princetonese for “section”). I envisioned a Socratic Journal Club, in which the students would read beforehand a paper corresponding to the week’s lecture material and come to class prepared to turn it inside and out, with yours truly serving as moderator-in-chief.


Last Thursday was the first precept of the Fall semester. In the two previous years I had used the famous Meselson & Stahl paper, which demonstrated semi-conservative replication of DNA, as the icebreaker:



However, this year I wanted to lead off with the paper I usually saved for the second week, namely Hopfield et al, better known as the paper that elegantly demonstrated kinetic proofreading in protein translation. This go-around I wanted to mix things up a bit, so I didn’t give the students any warning. They glimpsed the paper for the first time in precept, and I gave them 45 minutes to read all five densely packed, crisply written pages in small breakout groups. Then for the remaining 45 minutes we walked through the paper’s methods, results and conclusions, figure by figure:




I asked my students to tell me the purpose of each experiment, and what could be gleaned from the data. I also asked them to prove that they understood how the experiments had been done, even though few of the techniques are widely used today. At the end of precept, I asked them to rate the paper on a difficulty scale of 1 to 5. Most found the paper to be a 2 or 3, which is where I had hoped it would score.


Now if reading a paper in class doesn’t seem particularly radical, you’re right it’s not. However, what I do think is refreshing is exposing undergraduates to papers as early as possible, instead of waiting till their junior or senior years, or until the first year of graduate school. The Journal Club is really just Lab Meeting with someone else’s data, and a lab meeting is the crucible in which data are forged into knowledge. So why not expose budding scientists to the scientific method in action at the very same time they’re acquiring independent computational and analytical capabilities?


The floor is open to discussion..

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  • http://www.facebook.com/FastSandslash Michelle Hsieh

    Great idea. This is already implemented at the University of Otago’s Pharmacy programme, although I do suspect that it is a new concept. By being in contact with Undergraduates, the general consensus on exposure to research papers, is that most students find it unnecessary and a “waste of time”. Mind you, we also have to account for the fact that the majority of entrants in UoO’s Pharmacy programme aim to achieve a degree (scrape, if I daresay) and then work in a pharmacy for the rest of their lives. Differentiating between the students who enjoy research for the sake of research and those who prefer the prestige behind a PhD (a few too many, unfortunately) is also a difficult point for staff members. Or so I’ve heard. What worries me is the lack of learning occuring within Universities. Learning, to me, is not just attaining a list of incoherent facts, stored in boxes within the mind. Learning is to expand the mind, connect pieces of the ever-morphing puzzle of life itself, and critically apply these aspects of knowledge. One theory which I try to apply strongly, is to not ever ask a “stupid” question. What I define as a “stupid” question is a question that you can find before three hours of searching through research articles. For the sake of convenience, I find that many students have lost the ability to think for themselves. There is no questioning of material given, there are no “what if’s” (a curse of childhood), there are too many “what would be in the exam/are we tested on this” questions, and no discussion. It seems to be a fully passive learning process. If it were a discussion, lecturers would get ideas and students would gain skills (as my favourite phrase goes: “si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait”) Also, another issue is being excluded from “public” seminars. As an Undergraduate, I found one of the biggest barriers to free and open learning is discrimination. Whenever I turn up to seminars, most lecturers stare at me with confusion, wondering what an Undergraduate is doing in their “exclusive” meetings, despite being open to the public (or so they state). Another difficult attitude that I come up against is the: “you know nothing” attitude, or the “get a PhD first” attitude (I have a suspicion that when I manage to hopefully do a PhD, that would change to the “get a PostDoc” attitude). Anyway, I digress. Pedagogy is a very interesting subject.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      Thanks for your feedback, Michelle! Sounds like you’ve thought about these issues carefully for some time. I agree with you that undergraduate science has slipped but so have many undergraduates, which is sign that the problem starts before college in K-12. More passionate people like you working bit by bit is the answer until the rest of the world starts paying attention.

    • http://twitter.com/larysar Leonardo Saravia

      I expose them to the scientific method but can get away of “what would be in the exam/are we tested on this” . Great post and great comment!

  • Pradeep

    I am a graduate student from Tribhuvan University, Nepal and i believe the technique will be effective and the most the technique will modulate the thinking capacity of the student as a young scientist rather than to go through the techniques, the crucible will develop creative analysis skills in them…i liked the method.

  • http://twitter.com/MerWright13 Meredith Wright

    As a current Princeton student (albeit not an ISC student, just a MOL major), I want to applaud the technique of exposing students to papers early on. From the tiny bit of research experience I’ve had, it seems that being able to read and understand scientific papers is crucial to being able to contribute to the field. I wasn’t exposed to them until my sophomore spring when I was taking a course with lots of juniors and seniors who already knew how to read these well…I felt so overwhelmed! I think it took until junior spring when I took Cell and Developmental Biology with Burdine and Coller for me to finally feel like I was comfortable deciphering scientific papers. They did a great job of having problems set questions where you had to read a paper and then answer questions based on the figures in the paper…things along the lines of ‘why is there an extra band in the gel in Fig. 2?” or “describe the assay used to generate Fig. 3.” This allowed me to finally learn the practical skills of understanding the data in papers really well. The minutia facts that are often tested on exams can be Googled in five seconds in a real research setting, but if you can’t read a paper you can’t do science. I wish I’d mastered reading these sooner! I’m glad you implement them early.