Labs offer more than a
'recipe' for success

Seeing the fruits of teaching science differently to undergraduates has been a cause for excitement at both Emory College and Oxford College. Even better, success has come as a result of conversation — and, yes, experimentation — on the part of engaged faculty on both campuses.

A primary focus has been on creating opportunities for authentic research centered on active, hands-on experimentation. Science labs often have meant following a specific recipe of instructions to achieve a known result. However, a growing body of research suggests that authentic research techniques are a better way to teach science and show the creativity and problem solving often overlooked in a more rote curriculum.

Although throwing away the cookbook in labs can be frustrating, the new approach gives students the opportunity to learn from mistakes and even make discoveries. In the end, the method increases the number of students who are more confident in their research and much more interested in careers that will include it.

lab project with graduated cylinders and LEDs

A mountain of evidence for Oxford’s leading role

Oxford College has been in the forefront of such hands-on learning in the sciences for more than a decade. Driven by the high standards of a dedicated, demanding, and ever-inquisitive faculty, science instruction has been a point of particular pride, with a focus on experiential learning both in the lab and field.

Eloise Carter, an Oxford biology professor since 1988, and Judy Morgan, the retired director of undergraduate laboratories at Emory College, coauthored an investigative biology instruction lab manual to encourage and help plan such active labs.

Biology chair and professor Nitya Jacob developed a lab module that trains students to collect samples on the nearby Arabia Mountain granite outcrop, then investigate the microbes found through DNA isolation and sequencing.

“Going through each step of the scientific discovery process, including its uncertainty and frustration, gives students a realistic view of thinking and working like a scientist,” Jacob wrote in the journal Science when she was among just 15 winners nationwide of the 2011 Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction and the journal published her paper, “Investigating Arabia Mountain: A Molecular Approach.”

"The faculty members share two things in common. One is our passion for science. We love engaging in science in our own areas of inquiry. Second, we have a great, shared interest in challenging and supporting our students. We want them to develop the ability to think and work as scientists," says Carter.

Then, in February 2016, the Oxford Science Building opened its doors, representing not a transformation of science education so much as a physical manifestation of the academic rigor that already fueled the core of the program. Said then-Dean Stephen Bowen, “Never was there a building more thoughtfully planned to support hands-on, inquiry-driven undergraduate science education. The building is in itself an expression of the Oxford culture.”

At 57,000 square feet, the science building is the largest on the Oxford campus, with nine labs, six lab prep areas, three cross-disciplinary research laboratories, a greenhouse, an outdoor classroom, and multiple spaces created for group collaboration — whether planned or spontaneous.

It was designed by EYP Architecture and Engineering, a national firm known for building projects that fit authentically into their surroundings. Architects planned the Oxford Science Building around a theme of “kinship” — between students and faculty; the campus and the natural world; and the Oxford community past, present, and future.

Oxford's science faculty were actively engaged in planning for the science building, helping to ensure that the finished product would genuinely serve the way they teach.

Megan Cole in discussion with students

Better pedagogy through 'guided chaos'

When Megan Cole — a biology lecturer in Emory College and director of undergraduate laboratories — was hired three years ago, she knew that she had work to do.

“Some students would leave the major because they had a complete misrepresentation of what science is,” says Cole. “Science is often moving forward without knowing what’s next, and we were losing the excitement of not knowing and then finding something new.”

One module, developed with assistant biology professor Roger Deal, called for students to infect plant roots with bacteria carrying a DNA plasmid to see if that DNA would be expressed in the plant cells.

Such guided inquiry often leads to excitement, even in the messy failures. Students in one early test lab were confused by the result of their plan to help transform plant roots. The DNA didn’t take hold in the roots as hoped.

But some plant leaves did end up tinted blue, the marker signifying they had been exposed to the bacteria. Students concluded lab errors — accidentally crushing the leaves with the tweezers with bacteria on them — were behind the discovery of an alternate way to get the DNA into the plants.

“It’s best described as guided chaos,” says Daniel Kim, a senior majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, who was among the students in the first test labs. But that experience was enough to prompt Kim to pursue research in a neurosurgery lab and work as a biology lab teaching assistant for two years. “You’re are trying to find answers we don’t know, and that’s much more engaging and interesting,” he says.

Another teaching assistant, Elena Totchilova, agrees. The unexpected can be part of the fun or the challenge, especially for high-achieving students who’ve grown accustomed to seeing the result they want when they put in the effort.

"The good lesson is that experiments don’t always go the way you planned," says Totchilova.

“Learning that bad data is still information to use, to plan next time, is more useful than always getting what you expect,” says Totchilova, a senior majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology.

Turning the frustration over a module into curiosity may make a scientist. But it also teaches critical-thinking skills to anyone following the latest findings in the news, Cole says. “Our goals are not just to mold students as STEM or biology majors,” she says. “Whether they are premed or are studying the humanities, they will have a better understanding of the work that goes into these real-world issues.”