“Why should my students do research?”
I received this question from my mentor when I offered to help his high school students develop a better understanding of science as they prepare for college. He informed me about their “highly respected STEM program, inviting speakers from all over industry to come and speak to [their] students about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.” Prior to this moment, I had never explained to someone the value of doing original research.
It didn’t take me long to think of the benefits that students receive from actually working through the scientific method. From the unconvinced look on his face, I realized that I needed to do a better job explaining it.
If I could convince high school students of the value of doing original research, college students would be more passionate about this valuable experience. Since that meeting, I have been developing a list of lessons best learned while conducting scientific research.
Students learn the methods of science better doing original research. They must observe the natural world, note trends in the data, ask thoughtful research questions, and propose reasonable explanations of the trends (hypotheses). Even while working through a well-designed lab experience, students work with hypotheses they didn’t come up with. When students propose explanations, it is easier for them to design experiments to test the hypothesis. Nobody truly understands the methods of science until they use them while exploring meaningful questions.
The meaning of the word theory confuses most people. Is a theory just a hypothesis? Is a theory just our best guess? Doing your own research illuminates the incredible difference between a hypothesis and a theory. Theories are supported by data from dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of different experiments. While a hypothesis may explain your observations extremely well, a single round of experimentation often proves the hypothesis false. As a student participates in research, she better understands that a scientific theory is very different from the typical meaning of the word.
Science is a collaborative enterprise, requiring the work of teams of researchers working for years and building upon other findings. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds much of the research done by some of the best scientists in the world. The NSF is starting to emphasize funding projects that are deliberately and obviously collaborative, bringing people from multiple disciplines together to solve big challenges. Most students hate group projects. Research projects, exploring original questions, bring students together better than any other activity. Because science is a collaborative enterprise, it forces every student to be involved in a meaningful and valuable way.
The above are just some of the lessons best learned through original research. If our goal is to educate our students, every STEM program should expect and facilitate students asking and exploring original questions. It would take countless hours of lecture to teach a student what they can learn in a few hours of working on a research project with some of their peers.
In the Biological and Physical Sciences Department, we encourage our students to be involved in as many research opportunities as possible. Every biology faculty person we have is doing original research that incorporates our students. We are presenting our research at regional, national, and international science meetings, and publishing in scientific journals. We are blessed to have donors that support our research program separately from the operational budget of the department.
I have taught at three similar institutions, and no one does more or higher quality research than we do here at The Master’s University.
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