Above: then-TA Sara Brownell and Prof. Tadashi Fukami, by Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News Service
How one prof redesigned a course to align with his research
You’re a busy professor at Stanford, with multiple competing responsibilities. You hear advice about innovating in your teaching, and you’d like to try a new approach, but time is a concern. You’ve heard about combining your teaching with your research, but aren’t sure how. And you wonder whether changing your teaching will actually help students learn better.
That was Assistant Professor Tadashi Fukami’s situation when he arrived at Stanford five years ago. He had already struggled to combine his teaching and his research at a previous position and was not eager to try again.
But at New Faculty Orientation, he heard Michele Marincovich of the Center for Teaching and Learning say, “Combine your teaching and your research in ways that make the two mutually beneficial.” The advice came with strategies that stuck with him.
An opportunity to try them came when the Biology Department wanted to overhaul several of its core courses, including Bio 44Y, incorporating inquiry-based instruction (IBI) to give students a more authentic feel for real research. Fukami was part of the team redesigning the courses.
Fukami took the opportunity to introduce Bio 44Y students to his own research. In 2009, as a pilot, he brought one section of the class, 20 students, out to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve to gather data about microbial pollination, his own area of research. The rest of the 44Y students followed the existing “cookbook” curriculum.
Fukami didn’t do it alone. Besides having the support of his department in the pilot design, he worked with Matt Kloser, then a doctoral candidate in Science Education, and Sara Brownell, then a doctoral candidate in Biology, who compared the learning in his section with that of the students in the rest of the course. Kloser and Brownell worked under the guidance of Rich Shavelson, Professor Emeritus in the Graduate School of Education (GSE). The partnership let the GSE researchers study the two course models side by side while giving Fukami feedback on his new model.
Fukami challenged his students to formulate hypotheses, within narrow parameters he set for them, and gather data. By sharing a large set of data, the student teams could test their hypotheses and present their findings within the 10-week quarter.
They had close interaction with Fukami, TAs, and each other, which gave them “the feeling of being cared about,” says Fukami, and contributed to their success. The small groups are “more similar to actual research teams, where you know the people you’re working with.”
Brownell and Kloser assessed the students’ outcomes and found that “students in the research-based lab had more positive attitudes toward authentic research, higher self-confidence in lab-related tasks, and increased interest in pursuing future research compared with students in the cookbook laboratory course” (from their paper in the Journal of College Science Teaching[subscription or Stanford login required]). By shortening the distance between data collection and finding answers, Fukami enabled his students to grasp the scientific process and get excited about it.
The pilot was so successful (covered by Stanford News Service in 2011) that Fukami did it again the next year with 34 students, and in 2011 with the full class of 132. Fukami and his team of TAs structured the large class into small groups to maintain the collaboration and trust that was so productive in the first trial.
Fukami’s own research has benefited from the student involvement through the 44Y course. One student team’s investigation of the relationship between nectar pH and microbial abundance led Fukami’s team to integrate microbial abundance into their work.
Fukami continues to bring IBI into his teaching. In Autumn 2012 he taught a module in the Wrigley Field Program in Hawaii, working all day for a week with a group of twenty undergraduates on a field ecology module. As he did in Bio 44Y, he challenged his students to gather data to answer scientific questions.
In March, 2013, Fukami received the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction for his innovative restructuring of Bio 44Y. His Science essay about the project explains the pedagogical decisions and assessments he and his team made to create the successful class.
To faculty who are wondering how to combine their research with their teaching, Fukami says, “Choose the easiest but still interesting parts of what you do [in your own research] in terms of data collection and analysis to answer questions, so you can help students focus on the actual science process.”
Fukami structured the project so students needed to learn only the easiest lab techniques. Then they could move on quickly to their experiments and gather data.
Also, the students contributed to one large data set and shared it. This helped them move forward more quickly to testing their hypotheses.
Fukami’s team found that the students’ small groups were key to their willingness to try research. Fukami reasons that, just as grads and postdocs in a lab bounce ideas off each other with leadership from the P.I., undergrads need that same support structure. Therefore, his team made sure to group the students into small teams when they scaled the pilot up to the full class.
Fukami notes that the Bio 44Y redesign benefited hugely by his partnership with his GSE collaborators, who gave him immediate feedback about what was working and what wasn’t. They assessed student learning while the course was going on, which let Fukami make changes during the quarter.
The Biology Department applied for a Hoagland Award for Innovations in Undergraduate Education in 2009 to fund its large curriculum innovations, including the 44Y course. VPTL and VPUE offer several course and curriculum development grants.
Combining Teaching with Research - Tips from VPTL on other ways to integrate them
Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, National Academy of Sciences. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. (Full text online.) - Lays out a student learning-focused framework for teaching science
Course Design Aids – Tools to use in redesigning your course