Collaborative Inquiry and the Use of Digitally-equipped Microscopes in a Biology Laboratory Curriculum

Heidi Elmendorf (Biology) · Round 3

This project has thus far afforded us the opportunity to improve our backward design of the course to better meet our course goals. It is always important to think of course design as an ongoing and iterative process.

Heidi Elmendorf

Biology is a visual discipline, with much of the awe and wonder of life happening at the cellular and sub-cellular level. To observe these aspects of life, scientists have turned to microscopes. Thus, microscopes are critically important tools in the teaching of biology, providing students with the means to make their own observations, ask their own questions, and conduct their own experiments about cellular life. In fall 2014, the department started working with a new set of microscopes equipped with digital cameras. To further enhance the collaborative inquiry environment of core laboratories, this project designed pedagogies to connect students' research and findings within a shared digital environment.

Led by Principal Investigator Heidi Elmendorf, this project sought to investigate how the use of digital imaging can improve students' learning experiences in biology courses in two different realms: scientific content and scientific practice. In lieu of a traditional laboratory paper, students in the Foundations of Biology course took images using the digital microscopes and shared their scientific inquiry in online exhibits. They shared their findings with fellow classmates, their professors, their TAs, and their families and friends on the online Omeka platform. Elmendorf and her team hypothesized that the students' ability to compare their experiences with both digital and hand-drawn images will help them to probe more thoroughly the complex relationships between cell structures and functions than was the case prior to the use of digital imaging. They also hypothesized that the public nature of the analytical and reflective writing in online galleries would encourage students to reflect more openly and deeply on the challenges and rewards of research. Additionally, the ITEL project team hoped that the public nature of the writing would encourage students to embrace the strong role of the community in scientific research.

Preliminary findings seem to confirm the hypotheses. According to initial reviews of students' online laboratory exhibits, students were more creative in titling their work, either through infusing humor or staking a personal claim to their work. Student reflections were longer and commensurately richer in depth and openness of their comments about the scientific process, in comparison to other labs throughout the semester and prior iterations of this particular lab. Students also made more frequent and more explicit references to their larger research community, invoking their lab partners and TAs. Elmendorf and her team are currently conducting a more thorough coding and analysis of the students' galleries.

Due to the success of the first implementation of this project in the Foundations of Biology course in Fall 2014, the project will be used in next fall's iteration of the course. Elmendorf is also collaborating with colleagues on how to apply the microscope and online collaborative environment technologies in other biology courses at Georgetown.