Providing Context via Guided Inquiry and Service Learning

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Title of Abstract: Providing Context via Guided Inquiry and Service Learning

Name of Author: Laura Regassa
Author Company or Institution: Georgia Southern University
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: project-based, guided inquiry, service learning

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Stephen P. Vives, Georgia Southern University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The goal of the undergraduate biology change project in an upper-division molecular biology course (14-16 students/semester) was to enhance student learning, with particular emphasis on higher order learning skills, by generating a student-centered classroom that conveyed key concepts and problem solving skills within relevant contexts.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The initial phase employed a pedagogical switch to a guided-inquiry, project-based approach in a studio class setting. The course culminated with a mini-grant proposal that allowed students to apply their knowledge to a novel problem. More recently, the final course project was transitioned to a service-learning format. For the service-learning project, students developed bioinformatics case studies for use in high schools based on published accounts in the scientific and/or popular literature. Validated activities will be posted online via the NSF-funded Molecular Biology Initiative (MBI) Program ( and students will have the opportunity to participate in instructional delivery. An exemplary HIV case study was developed for this project (available via the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science).

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Learning outcomes for the initial phase were measured using a mixed-methods approach and showed significant increases in student confidence, understanding and application of molecular biology concepts and skills (JCST 2009, 38: 58-67). Evaluation of the service-learning component has focused on delivery and student attitudes, but will then shift to learning outcomes. Preliminary evaluation of student attitudes were completed using a 14-question survey tool (n=19, 5-point Likert scale) and focus groups (n=11). In general, students felt a sense of civic responsibility (4.3+0.7) and were neutral to positive about service-learning activities in classes (3.7+1.2). By the end of the course, most students felt that they could effectively utilize bioinformatics tools (4.1+0.5) and that the active learning and service learning approaches in class facilitated this outcome (4.2+0.9). Most students indicated that the project was challenging (4.2+0.7) but feasible with the dedicated class time (4.1+1.2) and instructor facilitation (4.1+1.0). Two focus groups were conducted using a guided question format with free form follow up questions to explore topics that arose. One focus group (n=6) was extremely positive about the service-learning activity citing the relevance, ability to choose a topic, follow up use of the generated materials, and learning opportunities. This group also provided valuable feedback on improving product delivery. Their responses were consistent with anecdotal evidence from 2 prior semesters. The other focus group (n=5) was dominated by one student that later asked to be removed from the study; data from this group was not included. Evaluation during the coming academic year will focus on both student attitudes and learning outcomes using a modified project delivery strategy.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: This course is taught at a primarily undergraduate institution where all Biology faculty members have active research programs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students that complete the molecular biology course are better prepared for the open-ended challenges faced in a research setting and enter the lab with strong skill retention. The service-learning case studies have the potential to broadly impact many high school students and in-service teachers, as the MBI Program directly reaches out to over 2000 high school students annually and the program curricular materials are freely available online.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: While the initial changes encountered some institutional obstacles, the three things that were instrumental in facilitating this faculty-driven pedagogical innovation were (1) outside grant funding; (2) faculty professional development; and (3) a department Chair that values educational research and that has slowly shifted departmental dialogue to include discussions on topics such as active learning, learning outcomes and evaluation. The greatest challenge to the service-learning effort is the demand on faculty time.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Learning outcomes from the original project were published in 2009 (Regassa and Morrison-Shetlar, JCST 38:58-67), and products from the service-learning component will be forthcoming as published case studies (e.g. Regassa, Cheeptham and Shuster, 2013 [Epub:] and as a manuscript detailing the evaluation of the new approach.

Acknowledgements: The initial phase of this project was funded by NSF (DUE-0407482). The service-learning work is a collaborative effort with the NSF-funded Molecular Biology Initiative (NSF DGE GK12-0841146) as part of the program’s sustainability efforts.