The X-Laboratory: Integrating Biology, Chemistry and Physics

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Title of Abstract: The X-Laboratory: Integrating Biology, Chemistry and Physics

Name of Author: David Julian
Author Company or Institution: Univ of Florida
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: General Biology, Integrative Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: Cross-disciplinary; chemistry; physics; inquiry-based

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Gabriela Waschewsky, University of Florida

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Cross-Disciplinary Laboratory (X-Lab) at the University of Florida (UF) is funded as part of the UF-HHMI Science for Life Program. The X-Lab project has three main goals: (1) help students develop a synthetic, cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the natural sciences; (2) engage students in inquiry-based experiments that model modern, authentic research; and (3) train students in the key theoretical and practical skills necessary to participate meaningfully in modern biomedical research as early undergraduates.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The X-Lab program has developed a novel, two-semester, six-credit undergraduate laboratory course that is targeted to STEM undergraduates as an alternative to their traditional laboratory courses in general biology, general chemistry and physics. X-Lab 1 (the first semester of the sequence) was first offered in fall 2012, and X-Lab 2 (the second semester) was first offered in spring 2013. Throughout the two semester course, all X-Lab exercises and experiments merge key concepts from at least two of the traditional disciplines while emphasizing critical thinking, formulating and testing hypotheses, quantitative and analytical reasoning, and communicating results. The X-Lab courses have now been approved as meeting the traditional biology, chemistry and physics laboratory course requirements for all UF undergraduate STEM majors, as well as by the Schools of Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine. Although many activities emphasize modern biomedical research techniques, an administrative goal of the curriculum design is to minimize or even eliminate the use of expensive equipment that must be shared between many students. This is to encourage students to explore equipment and techniques at their bench, and to enable adoption of the curriculum by institutions that have severely restricted funding.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Programmatic evaluations of the courses to date to date have used qualitative methodologies. Student engagement and the type of instructional activity have been measured using the Instructional Practices Inventory Data Recording Form (IPI), and focus groups have been held with students to examine their impressions of the lab activities and curriculum and their perceptions of how the labs had impacted their learning and thinking. The observations show that students were engaging in lab-related learning activities more than 90% of the time. The majority of student learning activities were classified on the IPI as Student Work with Teacher Not Engaged and consisted primarily of students working on experiments, analyzing results, and writing up lab reports. During this time the teaching assistants (TA) circulated, helping small groups of students. Students in the focus groups praised the labs, mentioning the realistic activities, positive interaction with the instructors, and a relaxed atmosphere with an emphasis on learning rather than grades. The students indicated that the interdisciplinary activities were especially valuable learning experiences and that they believe the best biomedical researchers are cross-trained in biology, chemistry and physics. In collaboration with the UF College of Education, quantitative instruments are now being created for assessing the student outcomes in content knowledge, attitude, and confidence for engaging in life science research as early undergraduates. Control groups will include students completing traditional laboratory courses. Planned expansion of the X-Lab program will allow instruction of up to 96 students per semester by fall 2014.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: An early version of the X-Lab course has been adopted by the Department of Chemistry, where is it now taught every semester. Individual exercises developed for the X-Lab have been adopted by the Department of Biology for the general biology laboratory courses (over 2,500 students per year), and adoption of exercises is planned by the Department of Physics for the general physics laboratory courses (over 2,000 students per year).

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: UF is a large institution (ca. 33,000 undergraduates), so there have been a variety of logistical and administrative challenges to developing a new course that integrates three fundamental, well-established courses that are traditionally taught in separate departments (biology, chemistry and physics). An essential component that enabled the project’s development was funding from HHMI, which allowed the recruitment of a small number of influential faculty from the Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Biomedical Engineering. These faculty worked closely with teams of graduate and undergraduate students from a variety of programs and majors to develop the X-Lab curriculum. Early endorsement from the college Dean, and from the Chairs, Undergraduate Coordinators and Advisors of the participating departments was essential. Unexpected challenges included needing to work with the Association of American Medical Colleges to ensure that their electronic application service would recognize the X-Lab courses as satisfying prerequisites across disciplines.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Development and revision of the 50+ laboratory experiments/exercises is ongoing, and laboratory activities that are highly novel will be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals. The remainder of the activities will be made available on the program website (

Acknowledgements: For their essential, continuing leadership and support in the development of the X-Lab, the authors are grateful to Steve Hagen and Robert DeSerio from the UF Dept. of Physics, Philip J. Brucat and Ben Smith from the UF Dept. of Chemistry, Kent Vliet from the UF Dept of Biology, Hans van Oostrum from the UF Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, and David Miller and Jean Reid from the UF College of Education. The program has relied upon and greatly benefited from its many outstanding graduate teaching assistants, most notably Elisa Livengood and Gabriel Dilanji.