Claudia Buttera – Department of Biology

Experiential Learning in Undergraduate Biology Labs

Undergraduate biology labs are by design, experiential in nature. Students are using equipment, manipulating organisms, collecting and analyzing data, most often, following a protocol outlined in a lab manual, to a predictable end or result. Labs can offer great learning experiences where students are most often, exposed to learning WHAT to do and HOW to do it, but the best of scientists are both curious and creative, driven by a much bigger question, WHY. They don’t merely follow a protocol to a predictable end –they are driven to explore areas not yet explored, are able to make new connections, forge new paths and be creative in the application of their skills, abilities and knowledge toward their own novel ideas. This is what we hope our graduates will be able to do and become.

With this in mind, labs in our 2nd year ‘Plants: Form and Function’ course are designed to not only teach and develop skills but also, to nurture curiosity and encourage creative thinking. Students learn how to prepare plant tissue sections from live material, how to stain them as well as develop microscopy skills to examine them. Students are also regularly encouraged to exercise curiosity when looking into their microscopes and really explore the material they have prepared. We also intentionally use a range of plant species that illustrate the diversity (and sometimes contradiction) in form, relative to function to encourage critical thinking. We purposely integrate time into the lab sessions -­‐time that is vital to allow students to explore and be curious, ask questions and discuss, while in the moment. We also understand that plant biology may not be everyone’s first passion and even perhaps incongruous with a student’s bigger plan, so we actively seek to make connections between plants and other areas (sports, architecture, medicine, engineering, design) in conversations and discussion with students throughout the lab sessions. What we aim to do with this is metacognitive in nature –help them to identify for themselves possible transferable skills, content, ideas, that are of value to them and may fit their personal bigger plan. The lab exercises are scaffolded, such that, as much as possible, they build on one another and formative assessments, both in the form of group work as well as independent work, are injected into the term at regular intervals.

The summative assessment in this lab course covers all the targets set for the formative assessments but students must apply their knowledge and skills to an entirely new specimen they have not seen during the term. It also includes a creativity component (for bonus marks and optional), where students are asked to apply what they have learned in the lab about plant anatomy to anything that interests them, in any way they want. A handful of students rise to the challenge and some of them have submitted great work, making very interesting and unconventional connections between plant anatomy and a broad spectrum of topics including stained glass work, the design of prosthetics, military tactics, drawing and rock climbing