Teaching Undergraduate Science Through Problem Solving

Elizabeth Deane, University of Western Sydney, Nepean, Australia

The real world of the practicing scientist is a world of problem solving. Choosing an effective and efficient experimental pathway to solve such problems is also, in itself, a problem-solving exercise. Which protocol of an array of possible protocols will best meet your needs? How much will it cost? How long will it take? How feasible is it in your laboratory and, most importantly, will it give you a solution? A whole series of questions need to be answered before the wise scientist proceeds. In this real world of science, the practitioner uses a range of approaches: peer discussion, reading the research literature and technical material, and trial & error to name but a few.

How then do we prepare our undergraduates for this real world of practice? The majority of undergraduate science courses in Australia, particularly in the earlier years of the program, are taught through a didactic approach with lectures, tutorials, and structured laboratory "experiences". Even in the latter years of the course, the laboratory experience is still fairly structured, presumably with a view to not only provide students with a set of marketable competencies, but also to provide them with what academics perceive to be skills appropriate to the discipline. To complicate matters, the knowledge base, and indeed the technical competency, of science is continuously expanding, making the task of designing science, and in particular, laboratory programs even more difficult.

In our science courses we strive to develop strategies which provide students with the wherewithal to meet the needs their future workplace. We try to ensure that students acquire not only a a sound knowledge base, but a set of valuable laboratory competencies. Nevertheless, we need to achieve more; we need to instill in these students the capacity to extend beyond what we have been able to offer in their course work, to develop the skills of lifelong learners.

In the B.Sc. (Biological Sciences) offered by the University of Western Sydney, Nepean campus, we have had the opportunity to develop a degree course with these ideas in mind. The course itself only commenced in 1992 with 40 students. This small number made it feasible to try different approaches to enhance student learning. One such approach has been the development of a third year subject in Immunology in which the laboratory activities are completely directed at investigating a real-world problem and the content areas are derived from current research literature.

The structure of the subject aims to develop a learning environment which is student-focused, not teacher-focused and has three components:

  1. Review of research literature,
  2. Presentations by researchers in the field,
  3. Problem-solving approach to developing laboratory competencies
In component 1, students working in pairs are required to access a research paper in three major designated areas of immunology. They then analyze the conceptual framework and rationale of the paper, critically evaluate the methodology, and examine the results. Each pair is required to present a 5 to 10 minute oral critique of each paper to the class; and all students are required to write a review of all three major areas of the course, incorporating information from papers presented in class.

Component 2 of this subject consists of guest lectures presented by researchers in immunology, the intent of this component being to bring together the student reading and analysis of research literature and their own experience in developing experimental protocols.

Component 3 is concerned with developing in students an appreciation of their laboratory activities through a problem-solving approach. Students are provided with a set of problems which are either concerned with immunological function or require an understanding of the use of immunological methods. Again, students work in pairs, investigate possible experimental solutions, discuss it with their lecturer and each other, and finally set up and undertake their experiments, from go to whoa, including ordering and preparing all their own materials and cleaning up!

Early on it becomes clear that students needed a resource base which would focus their thinking and provide them with guidelines as to the appropriate use and value of specific experimental techniques. While students undertaking the program had already been exposed to a range of laboratory experiences, it was apparent that they needed some direction in how these experiences/techniques could be applied in different situations. As a consequence, as well as developing a series of problems, support material was developed using a worldwide web browser. This support base consists of theoretical material related to immunological structure, function, and dysfunction; practical exercises with pictorial outcomes relating to the exploration of this theoretical base and a series of references to each topic area.

The use of the web browser permits access from the document being looked at to the wider information network of the web. This aspect of the material ensures that the database maintains its currency and with continued updating of the text, continues to be a useful, relevant source.

In total, this approach is designed to develop student skills in:

This subject has now run for three years, each year and each group of students has been different. The problems have evolved and the web-based support material is still growing as more material and results are added. The delivery of this subject is an intensely personal experience; I have benefited as an academic as this approach maintains my currency in the research area. However, I an no longer totally in control of the subject; it is driven by the student needs and ideas and, just in case you think this approach can't be used by others, in 1996, as I was on study leave, the subject was directed by an immunology researcher who was external to the institution. Her enthusiasm and satisfaction matched mine.

(This article originally appeared in Uniserve Science News, Nov 96. Used with permission.)