Implementing collaborative experimentation

September 30, 2019

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

Rachel Carmody, Assistant Professor of Human Evolutionary BiologyRachel Carmody, Assistant Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, explores a burgeoning new field in her course Gut Microbiome and Human Health. The main goals are for students to develop the skills to understand how experiments are designed and conducted, and to critically evaluate existing studies and emerging research papers. Students are challenged to generate new data of their own and run experiments to investigate a predetermined hypothesis individually and collectively during the semester. They regularly discuss the results of their experiments and produce final research papers that use the collective data to explore any aspect of the hypothesis that interests them.

The benefits: Structuring a course that positions students to “get in the weeds” of experimentation allows students to develop skills in a hands-on way. The interactive and collaborative nature of the experiments leads to peer learning in which students feel more comfortable asking one another “simple” questions while simultaneously being empowered to explore their own curiosities. Carmody says, “part of the joy in exploring and teaching what is still such a young field is that I know I’ll learn something new and profound every time I offer this course.”

The challenges: There is always some uncertainty when conducting original research and sometimes experiments need to be restructured or repeated. This can be difficult given the limitations of the semester schedule but can also confer invaluable perspective. Carmody says, “whether experiments run smoothly or not, students learn that scientific discovery is rarely linear, and that progress in new fields, in particular, demands an open and curious mind capable of recognizing and pursuing possibilities that were not anticipated.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Give students bounded choice. Students have the benefit of working collaboratively with peers while learning independently when they share a collective data set but are encouraged to pursue their own angles. In their final papers, students often address different questions using different subsets of the same data or dive deeply into a pattern that intrigues them. Carmody notes that “despite testing a shared hypothesis with a collective data set, rewardingly, no two papers to date have taken precisely the same tack.”
  • Provide scaffolding for students. Because many students don’t have experience running an experiment step-by-step, Carmody walks them through the process. In doing so, scientific experimentation is demystified and made to feel more tangible. Students are better able to surmount the mental barriers associated with complex-sounding methods reported in the literature and obtain a first-hand appreciation for why certain approaches work better than others in context.
  • Utilize existing scholarship throughout the course. While the first week of the course involves reading mostly lay articles and reviews, Carmody progressively shifts the balance toward primary literature as the semester deepens. Once students have achieved an overview of the field and an understanding of key approaches, she increasingly juxtaposes papers asking similar questions but reporting conflicting results, encouraging students to become critical readers. Students are challenged to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of the research, what they might have done differently, and what they would do next. As Carmody puts it, “until this point in their education, for some students, science has been a series of ‘facts’ relayed in a textbook. The uncertainty involved in conveying critiques and envisaging next steps can initially be uncomfortable, but I think ultimately proves deeply liberating as students realize they each have something important to contribute.”

Bottom Line: Carmody’s class provides a unique opportunity for students to engage in leading-edge scientific experiments first-hand. As they run these experiments and engage collaboratively with their peers, they become better equipped to read scholarship critically and to contextualize future discoveries that have yet to emerge.