Opinion: The Sweet Spot on the Teaching-Research Continuum

Overseeing assistant professors tasked with teaching freshmen how to conduct research revealed crucial gaps in STEM doctoral education. 

By | September 3, 2017

ISTOCK, FATCAMERASupervising the teaching practices of eight newly minted PhDs across STEM disciplines changed my thinking about how academia trains, or rather doesn’t train, doctoral students for this very important job. For the last four years, I have been the director of an undergraduate research program at Binghamton University-State University of New York that consists of a sequence of three course-based research experiences (aka CRE) that starts when students are first-term freshmen.

The hallmarks of CRE, a national model begun about 10 years ago, are real research with student ownership and professionalization.

Each of the research tracks (representing anthropology, computer science, biochemistry, environmental studies, geology, materials science, microbiology, and neuroscience) has its own research assistant professor, and annually about 30 freshmen and 25 sophomores participate. The main objectives are to improve students’ understanding of the process of science and the graduation rate of STEM majors—and to contribute to authentic research.

Establishing research norms in CREs

The main difference between these CRE professors and traditional appointments is that the latter face teaching and research responsibilities as largely separate endeavors, whereas our CRE instructors must learn how to handle those endeavors as a true continuum. Rather than shifting from teaching to research and back again, the CRE day-to-day work is a blend. However, none of the CRE professors had experienced CRE as a student, teaching assistant, or instructor. And therefore, despite having PhDs, these professors still required more training.

What academic departments tend to do—by assigning one or two tenured faculty members as mentors to an assistant professor, typically resulting in a few discussions over coffee during the academic year—is not nearly enough support.

Our university’s goal from the outset was changing class participation from high school mode (for example, students could be passive and drift off task) to lab-meeting mode (that is, all active in a problem-solving community). The first hurdle was for these instructors consistently to use the technique of asking students to write their responses to a question, then share with a classmate, and subsequently participate in class discussion. A key to its effectiveness was cold call (not waiting for volunteers, instead calling a student’s name or a team for responses to questions posed). It took a while to get comfortable with this process, yet it made a big improvement in the quality and quantity of students’ participation.

Knowing how important teamwork is to today’s employers and in collaboration for interdisciplinary research, we require students to work in teams. However, every year, the new freshmen say they do not want to work in teams because, in their words, they by themselves had to carry their teams’ high school projects. And in the first year of our program, every research track had one or more extremely dysfunctional student teams that instructors were unable to address. Subsequently, we adopted a teamwork manual and evaluation for the students to use that, combined with monitoring teamwork closely, solved 99 percent of the problems. As well-trained as these PhDs were, they still needed specialized resources and experience to deal with team dynamics and effectively promote teamwork skills in their students.

Students are accustomed to waiting for instructors to tell them what to do and when, and they easily stray off task. But in a research environment, they have to develop an appropriate rate and level of independence. Again, these CRE professors were frustrated by the default mode of students. That necessitated setting expectations with students about their performance. For instance, by requiring proficiency such that they can teach others, students gain self-confidence in their lab techniques. A basic timeline is that by the middle of the first-semester research lab course, students should show clear signs of increasing independence, such as planning and doing their own preparation for experiments in upcoming lab sessions. An early indicator that students are on track for that is if at the start of lab periods they immediately get to work without prompting.

Researchers understand the value of iteration, for example, to develop skills necessary for accuracy and precision and to optimize experiments by determining what range of conditions to use. But students view anything that smacks of repetition as a waste of time, a sign of failure, and a bore. Again, the CRE instructors had to address this directly by explaining what iteration means and demonstrating its value to achieve notable research results. In essence, the instructors had to help students understand why competency in skills is so important to researchers.

Mentoring for successful CREs

What academic departments tend to do—by assigning one or two tenured faculty members as mentors to an assistant professor, typically resulting in a few discussions over coffee during the academic year—is not nearly enough support. Some of the topics and issues we address in our program could and should be part of doctoral training. However, only so much can be absorbed there without a tradeoff in the maturation necessary to develop research skills of the discipline or extending the time to degree. More structured support for assistant professors emphasizing skills indicative of the sweet spot of a teaching-research continuum would be a win-win for all—undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and institutions.

Nancy Stamp is a professor of biology at Binghamton University–State University of New York and specializes in plant-insect interactions. She was dean of the graduate school for 10 years, and now is the director of the Freshman Research Immersion (FRI) program.

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