Teaching Scholars I, 2005-2006 Amy Wolf Final Project Description Project Title: The transformation of students from passive learners to active researchers: The Total Science Experience Teaching Challenge

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Teaching Scholars I, 2005-2006

Amy Wolf

Final Project Description

Project Title: The transformation of students from passive learners to active researchers:

The Total Science Experience
Teaching Challenge: For most students, this course provides their first opportunity to engage in original scientific research. Projects completed during the semester require students to go beyond a passive classroom experience and beyond “cookbook” lab exercises. In a very direct way, they must become active learners. Because the approach is designed to be realistic, students inevitably encounter both rewards and difficulties associated with original research, including time and budget constraints, equipment failure (or inadequacy), uncooperative weather, and critical evaluation by peers.
Question: My central question was: Can students (mostly undergraduates) effectively learn the tools of scientific investigation and problem-solving through direct experience? and, secondarily, Do the students perceive such an exercise as valuable?

Strategy: Total Science Experience Approach (McGraw 1998, 1999).
The Total Science Experience is an ambitious approach to undergraduate learning developed by Dr. James B. McGraw at West Virginia University, where it has been applied successfully for 9 years. Other institutions, including the University of Massachusetts (http://bcrc.bio.umass.edu/coursewiki/index.php/TotalScienceExperience), Merrimack College (FitzPatrick 2004), have adopted this approach in various forms. In essence, “The Total Science Experience" prepares students to act and explore problems like scientists. Students begin by drafting a proposal seeking a "grant" or go-ahead for an original experiment. The proposal is reviewed by the instructor(s) and (in the case of other institutions) teaching assistants. Based on the reviews, the students refine their ideas and research plans until the proposal is approved. After their proposal is accepted, the students begin the investigation. During the remainder of the semester the students collect and analyze data, leading to a detailed manuscript of their findings, which is submitted near the end of the semester. The manuscript subsequently is reviewed by the instructor(s) and other students before it is revised a final time.
Project Designed for: Ecological Methods and Analysis (Environmental Science 467)
Course Description: According to the original course description, “Ecological Methods and Analysis provides an overview of current theory and practices of ecological sampling and analysis for terrestrial systems. Lab exercises offer hands-on field and laboratory experiences and provide an opportunity for students to analyze and present original data.”
Course Goals: Help students develop the skills necessary to carry out a research project from start to finish. Provide an opportunity for students to experience the process of being a scientist.
This course introduces a variety of tools and methods used in ecological studies. The primary emphasis, however, is for students to learn science by doing science. This process includes background research, development of a study design, search for possible funding sources to acquire resources, data collection, data management and statistical analysis, preparation of a scientific manuscript, and presentation of results.
Ultimately, the goal is to help students understand a scientific approach to problem-solving. This will be valuable for students in whatever career they pursue.

Methods: Before students developed their own research projects, we reviewed successful as well as not so successful projects from previous student investigations. A comprehensive session on use of library and online resources was provided during the first week of classes, thanks to David Dettman, Head of Instruction and Reference Librarian at the Cofrin Library. Lectures throughout the semester focused on current ecological methods and emphasized methods that were relevant to student projects.

Each student designed and developed an individual project, and each was required to complete the following steps:

1. Write a pre-proposal and grant proposal in response to a formal request for proposals. The request for proposals were modeled after the format outlined by the National Science Foundation.
2. Conduct a computer-assisted literature review.
3. Formulate hypotheses and objectives.
4. Design a meaningful experimental test of a scientific hypothesis and formulate a convincing project plan.
5. Review proposals of other students and receive mock panel reviews of grant proposals, with “funding” of some projects and “rejection” of others. Proposals that were not accepted on the first review were re-submitted after modification.
6. Collect data with full responsibility for carrying experiment or field work to completion.
7. Analyze data, with training on use of advanced statistical software.
8. Present results at student symposium (oral presentations) using graphics software.
9. Submit a full-length manuscript as if submitting to a scientific journal, followed by peer and editorial review.
10. Revise and re-submit manuscript in response to comments by reviewers.

Assessment: Students were required to complete an assessment on the first day of class and another on the last day of the course. Assessments consisted of the same 5 essay questions and self evaluation (Appendix 1). One essay question asked students to devise an experiment for addressing a specific research problem, including a null hypothesis, experimental design, and type of analysis. Students were also asked to interpret a two-way ANOVA table based on a hypothetical experiment. In the second part of the assessment I asked students to rank their ability to complete nine tasks effectively (1 = poor, and 10 = excellent). The nine tasks included the major learning objectives I set for the course. These included ability to write a grant proposal, formulate hypotheses, design an experiment, analyze experimental data, present results at a scientific symposium, review peer manuscripts, and write a journal quality manuscript. This initial assessment provided a baseline indicating the students’ prior knowledge and experience. The same questions were administered during the final examination period. This information allowed me to better assess whether or not the course objectives had been achieved. The students’ grades for their oral presentations and final manuscripts provided the basis for my rating their skills in each of these areas.

Student projects included the following:

  • Effects of earthworms on the arthropod community of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

  • Temporal and Spatial Variability of Spiders (Araneae) and Harvestmen (Opiliones) of the Point au Sauble Nature Reserve

  • Black bear (Ursus americanus) movements in response to hunting with hounds in northeastern Wisconsin: applications in GIS and GPS radio-telemetry

  • Comparison of avian richness, abundance, and diversity between Lake Michigan coastal forest edge and interior forest habitats at Point Beach State Forest in eastern Wisconsin during spring migration

  • Analysis of Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) density within protected and unprotected habitats along the Florida coast

  • The effects of increased temperature on tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) and tender-green bean (Phaseolus) seed germination and fungus growth

  • A comparison of local habitat characteristics and population densities of Ambystoma laterale in breeding ponds

  • The effects of varying levels of nitrogen on the survival, growth, and competition of Capsella bursa-pastoris and Trifolium incarnatum

  • Densities of Fisher (Martes pennanti) and their prey in the Navarino State Wildlife Area of northeastern Wisconsin

  • An examination of Plethodon cinereus populations in the Cofrin Arboretum of the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay

  • Spatial distribution of a spring wildflower, Anemone acutiloba, within an upland forest remnant in east-central Wisconsin

  • Slope aspect effect on abundance of Rhamnus cathartica in Mahon Woods

  • Effects of phosphorus from laundry detergent on Clover (Trifolium incaraetum)

  • Analysis of invertebrate assemblages at the intersection of a third order and fourth order stream

  • Dependency of Juglans cinerea (butternut) and Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum (butternut canker) within stands of butternut in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

In several cases, data were taken from previous studies; for example, one student obtained raw GIS files from more than 10 years of aerial surveys of the Florida Manatee by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Other students used data from their previous research projects. In 11 of the 15 completed investigations, however, the students collected new information during the semester.

All but one of the 16 students in the course completed their research projects and papers by the end of the semester. Their results were shared with classmates (and several others interested in the work) in a “symposium” of PowerPoint presentations during the last week of classes. The student who did not complete the project experienced logistic difficulties (unable to collect the target organism – a fish) and is working to complete the investigation during summer 2006.
Overall, I was quite pleased with the outcome. Five students (all receiving A’s for the course) met my expectations in most respects, and their work clearly stood above the others. At least three of these projects, I believe, are worth pursuing as publications in scientific journals. Another 7 projects were good, but fell short in some important element, typically in the analysis and interpretation of data. Three projects were poorer in quality, although the students definitely put forth considerable effort in completing their work. Quality of writing was a major deficiency of two of these projects and at least a minor deficiency in many of the others.
Student self assessments indicated improvement in every category (Table 1), although in two cases (“Carry our research to completion” and “Analyze data”) the differences were not statistically significant.

Table 1. Results of student assessment tools used in Ecological Methods and Analysis, Spring 2006. Student assessments (Appendix 1) were administered during the first class day and during the last week of classes. Instructor evaluation “before” was based on grading of questions on the first assessment. Instructor “after” evaluation for the same 3 questions was based on grading of same questions on second assessment. Instructor evaluation of other categories was based on final grades. Values in italics represent statistically significant differences between “before” and “after” means in the same category; values in bole represent statistically significant differences between “Self Evaluation” and “Instructor Evaluation” categories for the same period (before or after).


Self Evaluation

Instructor Evaluation





A. Write a competitive grant proposal




B. Formulate hypotheses and objectives





C. Design a meaningful experimental test





D. Formulate a convincing project plan




E. Review proposals and manuscripts




F. Carry out research to completion




G. Analyze experimental data





H. Present results at symposium




I. Write and submit a manuscript




I used three objective questions from the student assessment to illustrate student perception of progress and to compare these self-ratings with my own assessment of their accomplishments. The first question dealt with a null hypothesis, which they were required to formulate given a simple problem description (Question 1, Part 1, Appendix 1). Several students provided correct answers at the outset, but most students were unable to answer this question successfully at this stage. After the course, all but 3 students were able to formulate a clear, statistically correct, null hypothesis. Like the later questions, the students tended to rate themselves higher than I did at the beginning of the course, although the result was not statistically significant (p = 0.39, paired t-test); at the end of the course, they rated themselves somewhat lower than I did, but again the result was not statistically significant (p = 0.12).

Question #1:

B. Formulate hypotheses and objectives

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

The second question required a much more extensive answer (Question 1, Part 2, Appendix A). In order for them to score well, I expected the students to use the concept of randomization of experimental treatments and to address issues of sample size. Both my evaluation (p < 0.001) and their self evaluation (p > 0.001) clearly showed improvements in their ability to answer this question effectively at the end of the course.
Question # 2.

C. Design a meaningful experiment to test hypotheses

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

The third question (G in Appendix 1) involved the interpretation of quantitative data from an experiment. Specifically, I asked them to describe the significance of statistical output from a two-way ANOVA (Questions 2a and 2b, Appendix 1). At the end of the course, most students were able to answer Part 2a (which required knowledge about the meaning of a p-value), but relatively few were able to explain the interaction term. My scores of their responses showed dramatic improvement (p < 0.001), whereas their self scores did not differ significantly between the “before” and “after” tests (p = 0.29). Interestingly, they initially rated themselves much higher in this category than their performance on Question 2 indicated (mean score on Question 2 = 3.53, mean self score on Question G = 6.13, p < 0.01).

G. Analyze experimental data

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

Student evaluations of the course according to the standard Course Comments Questionnaire (CCQ) were very good (Table 2), with an average overall course rating of 9.1 based on 15 responses (one student was absent when the evaluation was given).
Table 2. Results of student course evaluations (CCQ’s). Rating scale ranged from 0 = poor/very little/ irrelevant/very easy to 10 = excellent/very much/very relevant/very hard/very well.


Class Average


Std. Deviation

1. Organization




2. General Intellectual Development




3. Instructor/Student Relationship




4. Importance/Relevance




5. Difficulty




6. Learning Course Content




7. Overall




Students provided comments on the CCQ’s and in a separate questionnaire (Appendix 2), including the following statements:

  • This class was the most important class I’ve taken here for my future after college. It’s the one of the only ones that I feel really prepared me.

  • This course was interesting and very interesting and informative – all aspects in this course I had needed to get more familiar with.

  • This class was extremely different from what I expected. I think it is important for biology students to get a chance to do research. This class took a lot out of me but Dr. Wolf was a great support system and very understanding.

  • This class was perhaps the most relevant course I’ve taken at UWGB.

  • Dr. Wolf went above and beyond to help the students of this class successfully meet their goals.

  • I liked the field work, but writing and speaking about it were not fun, but still educational.

  • I probably learned more in this class than in all others combined. Nothing can substitute for hands on learning.

Based on the student responses alone, I would judge this exercise as a success. However, the assessment and final reports provide more objective evidence that students learned important academic skills. Many (if not all) of these students are likely to pursue careers where the ability to apply a scientific approach to problem solving will be directly useful.

I, too, learned a great deal from this semester’s experience. Having each student conduct an independent project may be too ambitious. In most other institutions utilizing this method, a much deeper instructional support system is available, including teaching assistants and co-instructors. Logistics is a big part of doing science, and finding equipment, gaining access to facilities and study areas, and other practical tasks are important – and potentially very time consuming. As the course is taught over the years, I will be able to overcome some of the logistic problems, but there will always be challenges at this level. Perhaps having fewer general projects, but have each student develop a unique part of that project might be more manageable.

Due to the limited number of study organisms and systems active during the spring semester in northeastern Wisconsin, several students mentioned that this course would be better if offered in the fall semester. I have reached this same conclusion, and the change has been made already. This new schedule allows the students to collect field data early during the semester, which was not possible for some of the projects completed previously.
In conclusion, I believe more than ever that The Total Science Experience is a worthwhile approach for this course and for the UWGB science program in general. Students seem to appreciate the process, and evidence confirms that they acquire skills that they did not previously possess.

Literature Cited
FitzPatrick, K.A. 2004. An investigative laboratory course in human physiology using computer technology and collaborative writing Advan. Physiol. Edu. 28: 112-119.
McGraw, J.B. 1999. The Total Science Experience laboratory of Sophomore Biology Majors. Journal of College Science Teaching 28(5):325-330.
McGraw, J.G. 1998. The Total Science Experience in an Ecology Lab. Bulletin of the Journal of the Ecological Society of America 79(1): 100-103.

Appendix 1. Student Assessment administered at the beginning and end of course.

Ecological Methods and Analysis (ENV SCI 470)
Student Assessment

  1. Suppose you were asked to design a research program to test the effects of herbicide spraying on insect diversity in agricultural landscapes. You have an opportunity to work in 20 experimental farm plots where you can manipulate spraying schedules and other factors. Clearly state your null hypothesis. Describe the design of your study, including variables that you will measure and the methods(s) of statistical analysis.

(space provided)

  1. Below is an ANOVA table from a study of plant species richness in recently logged forest sites in northern Wisconsin. In this experiment, investigators compared sites that had been logged during summer with sites that had been logged during winter (treatment = “Season”). Within each site, samples along the edge of logging trails were paired with samples 10 m away from the logging trail (treatment = “SiteType”). Results from 200 samples (50 along trails in winter logged sites, 50 away from trails in winter logged sites, 50 near trails in summer logged sites, and 50 away from trails in summer logged sites) yielded this ANOVA table:



















Season * SiteType










a. Briefly interpret the statistical significance of the main treatment effects. In other words, what does the ANOVA table tell you about the results of the experiment?

b. What is meant by the term Season * SiteType? Use an example to illustrate what might cause this term to be statistically significant.

  1. Briefly define the following variables as they are used in describing woody plant communities. Identify a standard sampling method that can be used to estimate each variable. (The same method can be used to quantify more than one of these variables.)

    1. species frequency

    1. biomass

    1. relative density

    1. importance

  1. Describe a method that you could use to compare the population density of a small mammal species (e.g., Meadow Vole) in old fields vs. native prairie grasslands. In addition to the field sampling method, describe how you would insure that the samples truly represent each sampling area.

  1. What are the most widely used section headings in a scientific research article?

1) Title

2) Abstract
3) ?
4) ?
5) ?,
6), etc.

6. Please rank your ability to complete the following tasks effectively. Circle the appropriate number between 1 = poor, and 10 = excellent. Make your ratings carefully, since this information will be used in planning future class exercises and overall course goals.

A. Write a competitive grant proposal

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

B. Formulate hypotheses and objectives

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

C. Design a meaningful experiment to test hypotheses

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

D. Formulate a convincing project plan

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

E. Review proposals and manuscripts of others

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

F. Carry out research experiment to completion

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

G. Analyze experimental data

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

H. Present results at scientific symposium

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

I. Submit a manuscript to a journal

Poor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Excellent

Appendix 2. Supplemental student questionnaire administered at the end of the course.

Ecological Methods and Analysis

Course Feedback (Spring 2006)

1. Did you find the text book useful? Would you recommend that this text be required?

2. How would you feel about having a group project instead of an individual project?

3. Are there additional topics that you would have liked to cover in this course? If so, please list them.

4. Did you like the “total science experience” approach that I used for this course? If not, what would you change?

5. Other comments…

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