Shared Discoveries Program – Our Vision
If you can see it, you can be it. Imagine discussing how the molecular function of bioadhesives from sticky gecko feet can be applied to the design of the next type of easy peel bandage. Imagine doing it during class, in a small group, with a professor or graduate student acting as a mentor. Imagine reading original research on the neural control of locomotion and then in small groups designing a control system for a search and rescue robot. Imagine having the chance to measure the properties of real muscle and then assist a Silicon Valley company in the design of artificial muscles that can be used in the future to replace diseased muscle.
We must make undergraduate experiences such as this typical or face a national crisis. We have entered the Age of Integration and the pace of progress is truly breath-taking. Research demands and education must provide interdisciplinary approaches to remain competitive on a world stage. Not only must we integrate within biology from the genome to the organism, but we must facilitate integration beyond biological disciplines toward engineering, computer science, mathematics, chemistry and physics.
We are consistently shocked at how little undergraduates know about exciting discoveries from other fields that could ignite their interest and even lead them to their ideal career. We do not see tunnel vision in these students, but instead a vision that is inevitably tunneled as a result of institutional barriers. Some of our most rewarding moments in class are when an engineering student sees that his or her unique skills could lead to a discovery in biology, or when a biology student sees how his or her discoveries could inspire an engineer to design a novel medical device. You know that something right happened when you hear an undergraduate say, “Now that’s what I want to be. I never knew that anyone could do that.”
Leaders with an interdisciplinary vision for research and instruction
The barriers preventing interdisciplinary training are formidable. “Because of the finite nature of our minds we have subdivided biology into disciplines and specialties. These disciplines are artifacts of convenience and history. They give psychological support to us by setting limits on what we are supposed to know and limits to what we have to think about. They give us identity when we are young and honors when we are old. They become bureaucratically entrenched and often achieve a depressing kind of institutional immortality, and they also obscure our view of biology.” 
These walls must come down. It is not sufficient to create a new department merging two disciplines, nor to create another joint major, nor to add yet another course from another discipline to already overburdened students. Instead, research experiences, teaching laboratories, and both lecture and seminar courses must provide opportunities for students with different expertise to interact with one another side-by-side, just as they will need to do in the future. Interdisciplinary training requires a paradigm shift in approach. We must create a culture that values, seeks, embraces, and is enthused by interdisciplinary collaborations. We must create fundamentally different kinds of graduates and mentors for the future.
Traditionally, biologists have been trained in a particular area characterized by specific approaches, techniques and/or organisms. A biologist trained in a specialty becomes a more productive biologist in that area at the end of training (tunnel approach, which results in a specialized biologist; e.g., you receive training in behavior and you become a behavioral biologist). A second approach to training that has become increasingly important is the incorporation of additional approaches and techniques into an area of specialized training (funnel approach, which results in a synthetic biologist; e.g. a biomechanist may use information from evolution and ecology as well as from biomechanics to answer a question). While the funnel approach has advantages over the purely specialized training approach, it still creates a biologist whose major contributions will be only in the area of his/her specialty. We propose to “cross-train” biologists to become integrative biologists. These biologists will learn a variety of approaches and techniques deriving from diverse areas. They will be a specialist in one area (Area A), but will benefit from other diverse areas in and outside of biology and will be able to contribute to those areas as well. More importantly, an integrative biologist will be able to make advances in these diverse areas after training and are more likely to create a new field (Area D). To be competitive globally, future biologists must become more multidisciplinary, flexible and capable of addressing new questions that span levels of biological organization and disciplines, that require a selection from the diversity of organisms available and that can be more easily answered by considering an organism’s history.
Create leaders that can share the process of discovery
The necessity to be interdisciplinary, coupled with the exponential explosion of information, demands that our students must sharpen their critical thinking skills more than ever before. They will need to evaluate data more effectively and more quickly. Fortunately, critical thinking is at the core of what researchers do best. Unfortunately, we seldom formally teach or even identify these skills in the classroom. We share the process of discovery from a distance. Undergraduate researchers are frequently not asked to use these skills, graduate students often hope to get them by osmosis, and post docs struggle to use what they have to create their own programs. We must teach students to think critically and creatively by forcing them to ask questions and be willing to wonder, clearly define problems, examine evidence, analyze assumptions and biases, avoid emotional reasoning, prevent over-simplification, consider other interpretations and to tolerate uncertainty. We must focus explicitly on the concepts of falsifiability, logic, comprehensiveness, honesty, replicability and sufficiency .
We can’t afford to give classes where professors act as giant florescent highlighters for textbooks and students function as sponges memorizing, cramming and forgetting a monstrously large encyclopedia of facts. We can’t afford to give cookbook teaching laboratories, even if they are a “hands-on experience”. We can’t afford to have undergraduates do “research”, but essentially function as inexpensive technicians. Lets implement the Boyer Report .
Our solution stems from the process of original discovery in the research laboratory. Why can’t we provide a personal journey with a professor as they make great discoveries? Why not share the logic and the process of our discoveries worldwide? If we do, we can increase the chances of moving students from personal discovery to original or universal discovery. With this approach, there is no gap between research and teaching. Lets share the thrill of discovery in a framework that promotes critical thinking. We can use our original discoveries to teach principles by more direct involvement. We propose to create a program called Shared Discoveries that formalizes this process.
- Research-based teaching using a project format: BioMotion (IB 32)
- Research-based teaching using a symposium format: Comparative Animal Physiology (IB 148);
- Project based teaching: Communicating Scientific Research to the Public (IB 304);
- Lecture course on Comparative Biomechanics (IB 135);
- Hands-on, research-based teaching laboratory with the possibility of migrating the open-ended projects into the Common Biomechanics Research Laboratory for completion (anticipated in Spring 2008);
- Research and honors course for undergraduate research (IB 198,199)
We see these classes as extensions of the research laboratory mentoring process. We need to break down barriers among students, so they have opportunities to learn from each other, serve as mentors for each other, and learn how to function in diverse groups that are more typical of the workplace than the artificial environments of traditionally structured experiences.
Design and implement a new interdisciplinary biomechanics teaching laboratory
We will design and implement an interdisciplinary, open-ended, integrative biomechanics teaching laboratory that builds directly on the discoveries of research teams. We will focus on upper level undergraduates and graduate students. We will service approximately 30 students initially. We will run approximately 8-9 laboratories in one semester with 4 weeks for an independent project. The teaching laboratories will be open ended so that students can approach original discovery. They will use the case studies we develop and lead students through an experiment in an interactive fashion. After they are familiar with the equipment and procedures, they will be given a challenging problem that extends the current exercise, but ultimately ends with results that do not meet their expectations, often because they must consider another parameter. Full has 8 years experience running this type of open-ended teaching laboratory until funding was cut. This approach can be extremely effective in the development of critical thinking. Previously, Full documented the change in student thinking over time even during a single semester. Full then noted how well this transformation appeared to match a simplified critical thinking model from Nelson and Perry [4,5].
- Bartholomew, G. 1982. Scientific Innovation and Creativity: A Zoologist’s Point of View. Amer. Zool. 22, 227.
- Lett, J. 1990. A field guide to critical thinking. Skeptical Inquirer 14: 153-160.
- Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. 1998. Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities.
- Nelson, C.E. 1989. Skewered on the unicorn’s horn: The illusion of tragic tradeoff between content and critical thinking in the teaching of science. In Enhancing Critical Thinking in the Sciences (ed. L. Crow) pp 17-27. Soc. College Science Teachers, National Science Teachers Assoc. 1742 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC.
- Perry, W. G., Jr. 1970. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. Holt, Rinehardt & Winston.
- Wade, C. and Travis, C. 1990. Thinking critically and creatively. Skeptical Inquirer 14: 372-377.
Biophysics Graduate Group
We have a particularly strong association with the Biophysics Graduate Group on campus and encourage beginning graduate students to conduct rotation in CiBER taking advantage of THE Common Lab.
Distinguished Investigators Program
We propose to have dedicated work-space for two visitors in CiBER. We wish to fund visitors for short-term visits that would benefit all. During this period they will lead workshops, run hands-on demonstrations, and lead discussions in appropriate seminars based on their approaches to understanding biomechanics and physiology.
Initially, we plan to raise funds to award two-year post doctoral fellowships on an annual competitive basis. Recipients will be chosen based on their ability to conduct an independent program of research and, at the same time, contribute to and benefit from the training program. During his/her two-year tenure, each fellow will organize and conduct one graduate student seminar in his/her area of expertise. The goal of these fellows will be to enhance the diversity of the training program in both technical and theoretical arenas.
Initially, we plan to raise funds to support for two graduate students per semester that lack funding for conducting CiBER related projects. These students will assist in developing the teaching laboratory course.
Initially, we plan to raise funds to support for two undergraduate per semester that lack funding for conducting CiBER related projects. These students will assist in developing the teaching laboratory course. These students will take Honors Research Courses (198, 199) to complete a novel research project.