A completely made-over undergraduate teaching laboratory asks the question, “Will open-ended research and high-tech collaboration make biology more exciting and engaging for students?”

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Open the door to Room 112C in the BioMedical Center, and the first differences you’ll notice compared to a traditional drab lab are the bright colors, the LCD screens on the walls and wide-open layout. But deeper than paint or flat panels or a blueprint is what all these changes could mean for the future of biology education at Brown.

Students in this room, rather than retreading well-worn, pre-determined lab recipes, will instead work together in teams and as a whole class to tackle real scientific questions that don’t yet have answers.

“If we are going to capture the interest of young scientists, get them involved in science and keep them in science, they should do science — they should be involved in research,” said Mark Johnson, associate professor of biology and co-leader on a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that funded the room’s renovation.

Undergraduates can gain such an extra research opportunity over the summer, but what if it was simply part of their classes during the school year? What if it wasn’t an extracurricular at all?

“What HHMI challenged the universities to do was to think of ways to expand research experiences into the more traditional curriculum,” Johnson said. “We thought about the types of lab spaces we have here and what we would want them to be to support that kind of learning. The room was designed to achieve authentic research in a collaborative way.”

The room’s makeover, therefore, is really an experiment in remaking the undergraduate lab experience. That’s why the benches are arranged so that everyone can see everyone, not just the instructor. That’s why the screens integrate with Air Media software running on each student’s tablet, laptop, or phone, so that they can share their electronic lab notebooks on the screens with their teammates or the whole class (instructors can even drag multiple notebooks, data, and pictures together to the room’s main screen). That’s why the room looks so vibrant. That’s why the benches are at a comfortable height for standing up, not just sitting.

“There’s pretty clear evidence now that cooperative and collaborative learning helps students in STEM learn and retain information better,” said Katherine Smith, associate dean for undergraduate biology. “We clearly needed to update [our lab] space.”

Training day
Students in Gerwald Jogl’s biochemistry class learn to use pipettes at the beginning of the new semester.
Image: Frank Mullin/Brown University

Open inquiry

The room made its debut in the fall semester of 2015, hosting Johnson’s genetics class and an invertebrate zoology class taught by Casey Dunn, associate professor of biology. Neither class was designed to make special use of its features, however, because other sections of the classes were taught in the traditional labs around it. The first classes designed to implement the room’s inquiry-based mission will happen this semester when Gerwald Jogl teaches biochemistry and Johnson and Alison DeLong teach “Inquiry in Plant Biology.”

Jogl and Johnson said they have been excited to plan for using the new room, which has four benches that seat three on a side for a total of 24 students.

In biochemistry, Jogl’s students will work in teams of six, with subteams of three each. They’ll work out their plans for the day and post them on their screens and glass whiteboards.

“What I like about the room is that it emphasizes what I want to emphasize: the element of communication, planning and working and thinking together before you actually do something,” Jogl said.

The scientific problem they’ll tackle is to purify an enzyme from bacterial cells and then characterize its biochemical function. Other students in the team will engineer a bacterium to express a related uncharacterized enzyme.

“It’s going to be a very foundational lab, yet we’ll study enzymes that have not been worked on before,” he said. The techniques will be accessible for students (sample experiments were even rehearsed over winter break), but the answers students find in class truly won’t have been known until they discover them.

Similarly, in Johnson and DeLong’s class, students will work together on an overall project, tackling components of it in smaller teams. They’ll investigate a genetic mutation that disrupts the protein-making machinery of chloroplasts — the units in cells responsible for photosynthesis. The mutation makes plant leaves pale, but scientists don’t know how it affects their health, especially under stresses like too much heat or light.

“We’ll provide students with these mutants and they’ll go to work trying to figure out why it is the plants are suffering as a result of missing this ribosomal protein,” Johnson said. “We’ll take full advantage of the new laboratory to do this because the students can work individually and then when they have something to share collaboratively with the group I think that the room will lend itself well to that.”

These kinds of novel uses are what Peter Holden, director of biomed facilities, sought to enable when he set out to design the room, working closely with with Johnson and Katherine Patenaude, director of BioMed multidisciplinary laboratories. Holden’s first draft included six tables of four students each, but with the instructor in the center, screens at every table and a projector screen at the front. As they consulted more widely, including with the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, the design advanced to the final product of four tables of six students in the hub-and-spoke arrangement.

“We pulled everybody together and we brainstormed,” Holden said. “There was a great evolution. If you go in there, the spoke arrangement gives a visualization of both individual team environments and an overall class experience.”

First draft
In an early version of the room, desks were in rows for groups of four. The instructor was still central, but the sight lines were different and the floorplan was not as open.
Image: Peter Holden
 

Feedback from the fall

Once the planning was done, Holden said, the renovations took just three months, allowing the room to be ready for classes in September 2015. Although they weren’t designed to make full use of the room, the fall classes were hardly a passive inauguration. Instructors saw changes in how students engaged with each other.

Without any particular prompting, Dunn said, students started sharing results and images on the wall screens, posting slideshows of the organisms they were studying that day. Students could take pictures through their microscopes with their smartphones and then share them with each other for their electronic lab notebooks.

“The students really quickly figured out how to use the additional resources in that room in what I thought were really innovative ways,” Dunn said. “If someone saw something cool, it was up on the wall for others to see even without it being a big announcement or anything.”

Senior Elissa Johnson said the room’s amenities helped her learn in Dunn’s class.

“We could conduct our dissections and observations and then the TAs would project things into the screen that were potentially helpful or relevant,” she said. “Sometimes they would project slides or videos of what we should be looking for. The fact that all the desks are tilted toward the central screen is especially great compared to the other lab rooms, where the screen is off to the side and only about a quarter of the room can see it.”

Class teaching assistant and biology graduate student Nicola Malakooti said the room’s layout helped her teach.

“I think the class enjoyed the open feel of the room, and I do think having a space in the middle made it easier for the TAs to be accessible for questions and have a view of all the students at once,” she said.

Such individual reports are instructive, but surveys and other data from genetics students in the new room vs. the traditional labs will allow the university will to evaluate what differences the new room made to student learning and engagement. Undergraduate lab manager Jody Hall, who co-taught the genetics class with Mark Johnson, led the effort to gather that data. She’ll be able to compare things like student satisfaction and how much they collaborated with others.

“We conducted the same labs we’ve always conducted in two different spaces,” Hall said. “There is useful information to be derived from that.”

The outcome of that study and observations from this semester will help to determine whether more labs should be renovated this way.

Collaboration through time

In addition to the differences the room may make in how any individual class is taught, Dunn, Jogl, and Johnson also dream of another possibility: linking classes through time. Digital storage of everyone’s lab notebook makes it possible for one class to build on the accumulated knowledge and experience of a class that came before. They might even be able to pick up where the previous class left off.

“Our generations of students will work with each other,” Jogl said.

Building upon prior work to take on the next question is the natural progression for classes that are pursuing real, open research questions.

“Scientists don’t do the same experiment every year,” Johnson said. “If they did, there would be no progress.”

The same could be said for science education, and so the new room is different by design.

A 30-second tour
Enter the room with Kelly Cleveland, senior technical assistant for BioMed Multidisciplinary Laboratories, as she introduces 112C's essential features.