Have you thought of collecting real, publishable, data as a part of lab that you’ve taught? Specifically, is it workable to use a single lab activity, conducted over multiple sections over multiple years, to build a dataset to ask a pending research question?
It sounds like a workable idea, which could be good for students, good for the professor, and good for Science. But I’ve never gotten it to work, despite reasonably-sized ambitions.
Here are several rationales, or rationalizations, for using the laboratory of an upper-division undergraduate speciality course as a vehicle for actual research:
- Students learn more about science when they’re doing original projects that don’t have a predetermined outcome.
- If students are doing actual research as a part of their classes, this can result in more engagement. It’s harder to engage students when you already know the answer, and you’re asking students to just discover the same answer that everybody else has found.
- If it’s my university, this practice would get prized by administration as one of the ten official High Impact Practices. It’d look good as part of the documentation in a tenure/promotion file.
- If you’re teaching a bunch, then this represents an actual opportunity to collect original research data, which otherwise might be hard to squeeze into the schedule. (In other words, this approach leverages teaching responsibilities to get research done.)
- If you are looking to conduct a project that involves long-term data, then the opportunity to collect information year after year can result in a cool and useful dataset that you otherwise wouldn’t be collecting independently.
Here’s why it didn’t work for me:
- There were often inconsistencies in the collection of data from group to group, section to section, and year to year — not all of which can be adequately tracked.
- Even when collected under identical protocols, it’s really hard to feel confident in the quality of the data.
- I found the activities were *not* engaging, because if the students exercised the latitude to adapt the experiment, then their data would not be able to be used as part of a broader project.
More generally, here are drawbacks that push against the rationales:
- If the students are learning about the process of science, that means that they need to be able to develop their own questions. If the professor designs an experiment in which the students aren’t making decisions about the question, experimental design, or methods, then the students are being deprived of an opportunity to learn.
- From the student perspective, this is a cookbook lab. And if the research is being done well, then the actual conduct of the experiment should feel cookbook, too. You could minimize this effect by having students add their data to the data collected from previous years, which definitely lets them feel like a part of an inquiry-based project, but ultimately this approach makes the students’ role as data-collecting machine, and not a designer of experiments. This isn’t a crime — and many labs are run with rote protocols — but if students can analyze data from an experiment that they designed themselves, they’ll learn even more.
- I think this kind of approach might get budding PIs off on the wrong foot. Because I’m betting this strategy is often appealing to newish faculty who are still finding their feet at teaching-centered universities, then they might be investing effort into a research avenue that might not pay off — that is, if the strategy isn’t workable.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the philosophy of being efficient with one’s time — to collect research data while teaching. However, I think that it’s rare that the major objectives of a laboratory course gel enough with the requirements of a publishable project. I’m sure in some fields, and some subfields, it might work more than others. I don’t want to compromise the value of a laboratory for the purpose of collecting publishable data, even if the students end up as authors. I’d rather use the lab for its traditional purpose, in this particular situation.
If the entire semester is designed around a single collaborative project that might get published, then that sounds mighty cool, but it’s nothing I’m planning to tackle anytime soon. As for the notion of using data from lab activities to do scholarship on the science of teaching and learning? That’s very apt, if that’s what floats your boat.
But it’s been quite a while since I’ve attempted to use undergraduate teaching assignments to collect publishable data. If any you’ve gotten this to work, I’d love to hear more about it.