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Encourage Students’ Autonomy with a “Choose Your Invertebrate” Lab

To strengthen students’ problem-solving skills, Dr. Jason Bruck reworked the lab script to put students in charge of their experiments.

Educator

Jason N. Bruck, PhD

Teaching Assistant Professor and Curatorial Associate , Oklahoma State University

PhD in Comparative Human Development: Behavioral Biology, MA in Comparative Human Development, BS in Psychology/Biology

Even before he could swim, Jason Bruck knew that he wanted to work with marine mammals. When he was a seven-year-old on a whale-watching excursion, a massive humpback whale and its calf stopped next to his boat, just a few feet away, and looked him straight in the eye. That awe-inspiring moment—which Bruck still remembers vividly—ignited his passion for marine biology and set the course for his career.

Today, as a teaching assistant professor in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Integrative Biology, Bruck focuses mostly on cognition, communication, and ecology in dolphins, whales, and other vertebrates (along with teaching, he also collaborates frequently with zoos and aquariums. “There are more of them with marine mammals in the West and Midwest than you’d think,” he says).

So when he inherited an invertebrate zoology class (squid, octopus, clams, and bugs), he was presented with an interesting opportunity to increase his expertise on the spineless animals of the land and sea. Bruck saw this as an opportunity to learn about zoology from a new perspective—a perspective he would share with his students, who were also new to the field.

Challenge: Canned lab experiments create a ho-hum experience

“Invertebrate zoology is a very broad topic, ranging from single-cell animals to knocking at the door of fish,” says Bruck. Despite the wide variety of animals who fall into this category, he has found it challenging to inspire students to connect with the subject. “They usually want to work with elephants, coyotes, wolves, and dolphins,” Bruck says. “Very few come in saying, ‘I want to be an expert on sponges.’”

Furthermore, courses in invertebrate zoology can overwhelm students with taxonomy, by making them learn hundreds of species with no real-world application for that skill set. Canned labs in this field rely on memorization instead of giving student tangible, real-world experience. Even the best inquiry-based labs might still involve the professor choosing which animal will be involved in an experiment, delineating the procedure and goals, and knowing the solution already. Bruck adds that this “is fine, unless your goal is to generate authentic research experiences where failure is a real possibility.”

As a researcher, Bruck knows that real-world research does not happen under such controlled circumstances. So he set out to find a way to convey to students how important it is that they think for themselves—how to problem-solve, how to research, and how to present their findings in an intelligent and intelligible manner.

Innovation: A “choose your own” approach

Interestingly, Bruck’s solution to his conundrum relates to his own still-developing knowledge of invertebrates. “Our department head had faith in me and decided I needed to teach this course,” he says. “And since I have a marine science background and there are a lot of marine invertebrates, it does make sense. But for many of the land invertebrates, I have a lot to figure out myself.”

Thus, the traditional “canned lab” approach would not work for Bruck in this course even if he wanted to adopt it, because he doesn’t know all the billions and billions of insects alone that students would have to memorize if that were the structure of the course. In that setup, students would have preconceived notions about the teacher and his ability to answer questions as they arise. The new model allows students to become the knowledge bearers. “I don’t know the answers to the problems they will come to class with,” Bruck admits. “For example, if they come with an invertebrate I haven’t worked with, then the student becomes the expert. But I can teach the student how to research their species properly, and that is a life skill he or she will have now.”

Bruck realized that, rather than hindering students’ growth, his mentor approach was inspiring ownership and expertise. To inspire even more of this type of engagement, he reconfigured his labs to put students in the driver’s seat: They choose their own research subjects and, at the end of the semester, their own projects; conduct those experiments (usually in groups); and then present their findings to their fellow classmates.

Context

“A lot of the class involves students conducting experiments in labs, and none of us know ahead of time if they’ll work. There’s a high-level chance of failure, and that’s good. Success in this course depends on the student’s ability to be prepared but also innovative in their approach.”

— Jason Bruck, PhD

Course: BIOL 3104 Invertebrate Zoology

Frequency: Three 60-minute meetings plus two lab sessions per week

Class size: 40–60

Course description: Morphology, physiology, reproduction and ecology of major invertebrate groups.

See resources shared by Jason Bruck, PhD

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Lesson: Turn research into student-led instruction

On the first day of class, Bruck shares his philosophy of teaching with students.

“My role as instructor is to facilitate your learning about invertebrate biology, ecology, and behavior,” he explains. “Learning is not a passive activity in which you simply absorb and repeat back facts. Rather, learning requires you to take an active role. This means that in our class meetings, I will not just lecture but also actively involve each of you in the learning process.”

Here are a few of the steps he takes to make that happen.

First, give them goals—and tools

Along with covering the basics of invertebrate zoology, Bruck spends the first half of the course giving students challenges for their research and making sure that they know—and understand—how to use all the tools available to them. This includes prior knowledge, personal experiences, observations, scientific literature, lecture and lab notes, and lab investigations. Providing a clear understanding of expectations (and the research process itself) sets the stage for success with future projects. It also sets the tone for Bruck’s approach: Students are responsible for problem-solving for any needed adjustments in their lab work.

Then, let them take the reins

Bruck’s expectation is that his students will run with their experiments—just as they would in research roles in the real world, where clear answers are not always available. During lab periods, he will advise them on what is working, what is not, and offer ideas. But he never provides solutions to challenges. He wants the students to know that, if they are making the decisions, they are behaving like true scientists.

“If your goal is to be a research zoologist,” he tells his students, “I need you to be able to test hypotheses, conduct statistical analysis, develop research projects, control for various factors, and understand how to present findings.” It is important to verbalize this, particularly because it deviates from more traditional labs they may have experienced. But it is also important for the instructor to be there to help facilitate their learning of these techniques.

Encourage innovation

Bruck’s students not only select the invertebrates they want to study in the lab—they find them and bring them in, so they can run experiments on them. With such a wide variety of subjects being introduced into the lab, students have to determine the right way to get the appropriate results. For example, the lab’s equipment might be designed to take electrophysiological readings of cockroaches, but it may not work exactly the same way with other creatures. For example, students trying to get the same data in earthworms may need to build a Faraday cage to surround their species and get clean electrophysiological recordings.

To move forward with their research, students often need to innovate. (This is where they will draw heavily upon the previous lessons about available tools and techniques.)

Transform the students into teachers

Bruck has instituted a series of in-class presentations: Students present a lecture on one member species from a group of invertebrates. The students work in lab groups to prepare the lecture well beforehand, conducting research and gathering necessary materials in the lab (he preselects the groups for an interesting reason: In real life, scientists do not always get to choose whom they work with).

Each group is given 25 minutes to present their material, after which the group hands out a short in-class quiz to see what the other students learned. The twist: Each group’s grade on the project is based, at least in part, on how their classmates perform on the quiz (typically, there are about eight groups per semester, so each student will take a total of seven of these quizzes).

Outcomes

Bruck believes that the autonomy he gives students in this course inspires them to approach the class differently. “I have seen students who failed in the rigid course structures available previously become leaders in the lab when the focus became challenge based.”

And the most important outcome for Bruck is that, at the end of the course, students are better able to think for themselves than when they started.

“You may give students enough latitude to get into trouble,” Bruck says of the approach. “But you have to take the reins off, or the students won’t be able to run with the projects. Most will rise to the occasion, and a few won’t. My favorite and most gratifying thing is to watch students succeed.”

Considerations

Bruck’s one caveat to other educators: There is a massive time commitment involved with replacing a “canned” lab with this kind of individualized approach.

“On paper, my approach might seem like it’s less work for the educator,” he says. “But in reality, it’s much more work: More consultation. More availability—nearly 24/7, since students may need access to the lab for work with nocturnal creatures. More administration, creating space for students to work on different projects.”

But Bruck considers the time a worthy expenditure if it helps students become world-class researchers.

Student feedback

Bruck has seen and heard the positive results of his approach as he watches his students move on in their education. “Students who never considered a career in research are now applying to graduate school because of the challenge-based labs I have instituted in Invertebrate Zoology. For many students, this is their only experience with original research.”

Bruck was especially pleased to receive the following note from a recent student who is now applying to PhD programs:

“I am applying for the PhD programs at these schools to pursue research on primate behavioral ecology. I would really appreciate a recommendation from you because I valued the research experience and feedback you gave in the course. Being able to develop and conduct a research study has helped me to better think critically and further my problem-solving skills.”

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