So as you probably know, we KU gk-12 types have also been working with undergraduates to help them develop their own authentic, meaningful research through the UKanTeach program’s Research Methods course. By giving future science and mathematics teachers the opportunity and support to do their own research, this course prepares them to be the research directors for a classroom full of secondary students. This preparation is important, because studies have found that the most consistent route to learning is through “project-based instruction” (see the National Research Council’s findings in How People Learn). Despite these findings, most teachers aren’t trained how to make project-based instruction a reality.
As with any research endeavor, some students are able to rapidly develop finely tuned, testable questions (e.g. Do environmental contaminants affect neural response time in aquatic organisms?), while others struggle with less open questions (e.g. How many leap days are there in the next 25 years?). I am currently working with several students on their 2nd of 3 inquiries for the semester. These inquiries have some required structure, but are relatively open-ended to allow room for student interest and first-hand learning. One of the students I’m working with is interested in evolutionary adaptations of gastropod feeding snakes in Kansas, and another is interested in white tail deer behavior.
Adversity is the norm in preliminary experiments. This is sometimes a hard lesson for all of us. For example, after attempting tooth counts via x-rays and requesting skeletal specimens, it became apparent to our snake student that his inquiry was not going to fit his required timeline, so he had to choose another path. He has now moved on to a classical operant conditioning experiment with cockroaches, but will return to the snake data for inquiry 3.
Our whitetail student was initially interested in the tree preference of white tail buck rubs (Bucks rub their antlers on vegetation for multiple reasons, including shedding of velvet, scent marking, and visual display, but specific details as to where and why bucks rub seem to be somewhat speculative). After several field site visits and some questioning, he is now looking at the spatial distribution of rubs with respect to the tree line and whether rubs in forested areas might be clumped, dispersed, or randomly distributed. He is learning how to use global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to answer his specific questions. He may use the preliminary findings from this inquiry as a model to predict spatial distributions of buck rubs in new study sites as his inquiry 3.
By working with students through their inquiries, I get to be a sort of experimental consultant, which I really enjoy. I get to talk with students with a broad array of interests and questions. I get to help them think through how to refine those questions, and I get to help them to figure out what kinds of data they will need and how they will gather that data. I can also help them to find resources (e.g. instruments, software, standard methods), but I don’t actually have to do the experimental work. It helps me to go through the iterative processes of science very rapidly and on multiple lines of questioning. I’m starting to get an inkling as to what my advisors might feel like, and even better it helps me to step back from my finish-the-degree-crank-stuff-out mode and remember that science is fun.