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Merging Teaching and Research

Tomorrow's Research

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Many at Davidson College have responded to the time crunch by asking an additional question: Why do we keep trying to 'balance' teaching and research as if they are completely separate entities? Why not merge them, actively?


The posting below is a thoughtful response from Professor Karen K. Bernd, of Davidson College, Davidson, NC, to posting #617 "Sufficient Time for Research," originally posted on Friday January 28th.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research


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I fully understand comments made in the excerpt from Sufficient Time for Research in The Research-Productive Department: Strategies From Departments That Excel (posting #617). The approaches mentioned in the previous posting focus on ways to separate teaching and research activities through stacking courses and buying research time. However, for some people the structure of their department and course/room scheduling may preclude strategies mentioned. Others may not be financially able to work without pay until the summer salary-covering grants come through. In addition, there are many people who do not want to reduce their teaching because teaching is one of their passions or because teaching is also requirement for promotion. How are people in all these situations to fulfill the teaching and research expectations of their departments?

I am on the faculty at a primarily undergraduate institution where excellence in both teaching and research is expected. Many at Davidson College have responded to the time crunch by asking an additional question: Why do we keep trying to 'balance' teaching and research as if they are completely separate entities? Why not merge them, actively?

First think about the teaching aspect. It would be wonderful to have rooms full of students who are engaged in the topic at hand, understand what is known and are able critically analyze new scientific claims and theories. But, how? One barrier to having this kind of classroom can be that people retain information better if they can plug it into a context. Often textbooks fall short of having a 'plot' that ties all of the information together with a reason for why the student would care to know it. Working through examples from real data and recent journal articles can provide applications and illustrate that research in 'textbook' areas is ongoing, not history. When approaching the same course content in this manner, textbooks are used as sources for background information and ways to compare/contrast the article's topic with additional examples or broader themes. The combination provides a context in which the students can use, rather than memorize, the information covered.

If teaching with articles or data, it only makes sense to use examples from your field. Bringing your research interests into class provides more connections that can help the background information make sense to students. As a benefit or incentive to the professor, 'prep time' for class then includes keeping up with articles in your field (merging with 'research time') and class discussions can allow you to 'see' the gaps in the way you present your work. Students are often amazingly good at asking the 'simple' hard questions that cause you to reexamine why you assumed something (improving your 'research time').

Bringing research into lab courses has been shown to be more effective ways of teaching science (inquiry based labs). While some professors are not familiar with this approach, or hesitate to change, it should be easiest to develop labs in your own research area. Independent study students, summer interns and graduate rotation students all require that you define smaller sub-projects. Using these sub-projects in course labs allows you to ask and answer research questions using techniques from your research (merging with 'research time'). Therefore lab reinforces class article discussions AND trains potential future lab members in the methodology your lab uses (merging with 'research time' and improve use of future 'research time'). Students are scientists 'owning' the information and contributing to the field. This can be a powerful way to enliven a course, as well as a recruiting tool for your research program.

We use and expect teaching approaches like these in graduate level classes. Graduate students read and critique journal articles, looking up background information when they need clarification. The lab rotations at the beginning of graduate programs provide time for students to master techniques. Since the 'only' difference between a senior major and a first year graduate student is three months, why do we treat them so differently? Yes, students in lower level courses may need more help learning where to look for background and how to interpret data, but that process, itself, includes valuable lessons and more closely resembles the way science is done. Course labs require choosing experiments that meet certain time constraints, some experiments may need to be repeated and data may not support initial predictions. This, too, more closely resembles the way science is done. Novel research, even in small bits, does more to force students to truly examine the role of a hypothesi!

s, consider the importance of thoughtful experimental design and really know background material than labs where the student-perceived goal is to 'match' the tried and true predicted results.

Now think about the research aspect. Your teaching approaches can be (in fact, are) research areas. Developing and assessing pedagogical tools may not be the field in which you have had formal training. However, if you have designed a class you have entered this research area. Wouldn't it be a good thing to stop ignoring this part of your research effort? You are already putting the time into the class, make that time count 'doubly' by assessing whether the class/lab is effective. By including assessment you also make students more aware of the learning process and how they interact with the material, which can lead to increased engagement (merging with 'teaching time'). With assessment included publish the pedagogical research just as you publish findings made in your research lab (expanding your research publications through teaching).

A majority of our students will not become scientific researchers, but they will all be consumers of scientific research. Why kill ourselves trying to maintain separate teaching and research programs when there are natural ways to merge them and when that overlap has been shown to be an effective teaching tool? Understanding how the scientific process works and working through 'real' research problems will not only aid students in becoming more scientifically knowledgeable, it will also help them learn how to think. Have your research, teach it too.

Karen Bernd is an associate professor of Biology at Davidson College, Davidson, N []