Empowering students to develop research skills

February 8, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Terence Capellini standing next to a human skeleton

Terence D. Capellini, Richard B Wolf Associate Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, empowers students to grow as researchers in his Building the Human Body course through a comprehensive, course-long collaborative project that works to understand the changes in the genome that make the human skeleton unique. For instance, of the many types of projects, some focus on the genetic basis of why human beings walk on two legs. This integrative “Evo-Devo” project demands high levels of understanding of biology and genetics that students gain in the first half of class, which is then applied hands-on in the second half of class. Students work in teams of 2-3 to collect their own morphology data by measuring skeletons at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and leverage statistics to understand patterns in their data. They then collect and analyze DNA sequences from humans and other animals to identify the DNA changes that may encode morphology. Throughout this course, students go from sometimes having “limited experience in genetics and/or morphology” to conducting their own independent research. This project culminates in a team presentation and a final research paper.

The benefits: Students develop the methodological skills required to collect and analyze morphological data. Using the UCSC Genome browser and other tools, students sharpen their analytical skills to visualize genomics data and pinpoint meaningful genetic changes. Conducting this work in teams means students develop collaborative skills that model academic biology labs outside class, and some student projects have contributed to published papers in the field. “Every year, I have one student, if not two, join my lab to work on projects developed from class to try to get them published.”

“The beauty of this class is that the students are asking a question that’s never been asked before and they’re actually collecting data to get at an answer.”

The challenges: Capellini observes that the most common challenge faced by students in the course is when “they have a really terrific question they want to explore, but the necessary background information is simply lacking. It is simply amazing how little we do know about human development, despite its hundreds of years of study.” Sometimes, for instance, students want to learn about the evolution, development, and genetics of a certain body part, but it is still somewhat a mystery to the field. In these cases, the teaching team (including co-instructor Dr. Neil Roach) tries to find datasets that are maximally relevant to the questions the students want to explore. Capellini also notes that the work in his class is demanding and hard, just by the nature of the work, but students “always step up and perform” and the teaching team does their best to “make it fun” and ensure they nurture students’ curiosities and questions.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Incorporate previous students’ work into the course. Capellini intentionally discusses findings from previous student groups in lectures. “They’re developing real findings and we share that when we explain the project for the next groups.” Capellini also invites students to share their own progress and findings as part of class discussion, which helps them participate as independent researchers and receive feedback from their peers.
  • Assign groups intentionally. Maintaining flexibility allows the teaching team to be more responsive to students’ various needs and interests. Capellini will often place graduate students by themselves to enhance their workload and give them training directly relevant to their future thesis work. Undergraduates are able to self-select into groups or can be assigned based on shared interests. “If two people are enthusiastic about examining the knee, for instance, we’ll match them together.”
  • Consider using multiple types of assessments. Capellini notes that exams and quizzes are administered in the first half of the course and scaffolded so that students can practice the skills they need to successfully apply course material in the final project. “Lots of the initial examples are hypothetical,” he explains, even grounded in fiction and pop culture references, “but [students] have to eventually apply the skills they learned in addressing the hypothetical example to their own real example and the data they generate” for the Evo-Devo project. This is coupled with a paper and a presentation treated like a conference talk.

Bottom line: Capellini’s top advice for professors looking to help their own students grow as researchers is to ensure research projects are designed with intentionality and fully integrated into the syllabus. “You can’t simply tack it on at the end,” he underscores. “If you want this research project to be a substantive learning opportunity, it has to happen from Day 1.” That includes carving out time in class for students to work on it and make the connections they need to conduct research. “Listen to your students and learn about them personally” so you can tap into what they’re excited about. Have some fun in the course, and they’ll be motivated to do the work.