|Historically, physiology undergraduate students across the world have undertaken a laboratory-based, fieldwork or critical review research project, their educational purpose for students to gain research experience. However, decreasing numbers of physiology graduates are going onto careers in research, many are leaving science altogether. It is therefore imperative that we, as educators, better prepare the majority of our students, through their projects, for the diverse range of careers they go onto.
Over the last twenty years, physiology and the broader global bioscience educator community, recognizing this diversity of graduate career destinations, have been expanding the range of projects available to their students, introducing for example, public engagement, educational development or enterprise projects. However, the focus and purpose of these projects remained for students to gain research experience. They were traditional research projects but outside of the laboratory. The literature and Accrediting Bodies project criterion still talked about students undertaking “hypothesis-driven research” and “project/research-based assignments”.
Whilst these traditional research projects may have been relevant fifty years ago, they do not enable the majority of current Bioscience graduates to be “work-place ready”. The world is currently going through its fourth industrial revolution (4IR), a world and workplace governed by robotics, artificial intelligence, digitization and automation. Graduate recruiters require graduates with different skillsets, the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) skills1.
I recognized that radical change was required, not only in my School of Biomedical Sciences, but across bioscience Higher Education globally. Collectively, bioscience educators needed to rethink the purpose, practices and outcomes of undergraduate research projects in order to better prepare our students for an increasingly challenging 21st Century global workplace.
My solution was to introduce project-based capstone experiences into my program. their purpose to provide students with opportunities for personal and professional development, and to gain real life work experience.
A highly experienced science communicator, I facilitated ethical debates in High Schools. I realized that this would make an ideal opportunity for my undergraduates – something different as their research project. Starting small, I collaborated with one of my project mentees to co-create and co-deliver an ethics-focused workshop for High School students at the 2005 Leeds Festival of Science2. The capstone experience, as an alternative to traditional research projects, was born.
Over the last sixteen years, I have progressively expanded the range of capstone opportunities in my course. Colleagues within my School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds (UK), recognizing the benefits of capstones to students, joined me. In partnership with our students, we have created a sector-leading portfolio of traditional research projects offered alongside science or industry-focused capstones, and those with a civic or societal focus in the same course (Figure 1)3. Students select the project that best addresses their individual developmental needs and/or future career intentions. By offering this broad portfolio of sixteen opportunities, it is inclusive, there is something for each and every student to realize their full academic potential and personal goals.
Figure 1: Research and capstone project opportunities available to students
My students have wholeheartedly grasped this opportunity, excelling academically. Their course marks are significantly higher than students undertaking traditional research projects (2020: mean ± SD = 71.4±4.4% vs 68.4±5.8%, p<0.05). In 2020-21, 27% selected capstones as their first choice of project, a massive cultural shift given we are a research-intensive (R1) Institution where laboratory projects have traditionally been viewed by both students and Faculty as the “gold-standard”.
Our work as a team has resulted in the award of a prestigious national (UK) higher education prize, an Advance HE Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence.
My work came to the attention of other Bioscience educators. I was invited to run workshops at Institutions across the UK seeking to introduce capstones into their program. I re-wrote one of the two UK Bioscience Accrediting Bodies project accreditation criteria, incorporating my capstone ideas.
And then Covid struck!
With restricted or no access to research facilities, Bioscience educators globally struggled to provide alternatives to traditional research projects. To support colleagues across the world, in partnership with Sue Jones (York St John University, UK) and Michelle Payne (University of Sunderland, UK), I ran virtual workshops, sharing my capstone ideas and resources. I created and shared globally, guides for students4 and educators5, and resource repositories6,7. The workshops were attended by over 1000 educators from as far afield as Australia, Africa and America. The resources viewed 12,000 times from over 50 countries.
A year on, we surveyed both students and Faculty globally. All responding institutions had introduced capstone projects into their programs in 2020-21. More importantly, they are here to stay. Recognizing the benefits to their future employability and careers, a massive 94% of students wanted capstones to be provided alongside traditional research projects. Faculty thought the same. All are not only keeping capstones, but more importantly, are broadening their portfolios going forward. Each new format developing different skill sets and attributes, and therefore preparing students for additional career destinations. We have inspired sector-wide curriculum change!
Going forward, we cannot return to our old ways!
As the world opens up and returns to a new “normal”, we cannot go back to our old ways of just offering traditional research projects. We would be massively letting our students and wider Society down. We need to take the best from what we have learnt and achieved, both before and during the pandemic, and continue to develop and evolve our collective capstone provision going forward.
We are at the start of an exciting Global journey. Capstones across the world are predominantly conservative in nature, for example taught courses, senior seminar series or extended essays. Educators globally have yet to fully realize the transformative (massive uplift in skills and attributes) and translational (preparation for the workplace) potential of capstones.
We need to create capstones that are more representative of the work place for example, multi-disciplinary teams and sub-teams working on the same capstone, and capstones that run over multiple years, with current students taking the previous year’s project outputs and outcomes to the next stage. The events of the past two years have made Universities realize they need to better address their local and global civic and societal responsibilities and missions, so capstones that facilitate societal engagement. We need to move away from traditional dissertations or reports to more authentic real-world assessments.
Within my School of Biomedical Sciences and the broader University of Leeds, we have started down this journey. Ninety percent of the capstones in my course are now team-based. Students choose their primary assessment method (e.g. academic paper, commercial report, e-portfolio) – the one most suited to their particular capstone format and which best showcases their knowledge, skills and attributes. I have introduced Grand Challenges capstones where students work as to teams to create evidence-driven solutions to global Grand Challenges or UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The intention to develop these into trans-national educational opportunities, where students from the Global North and South work collaboratively on the same SDG or Grand Challenge capstone. We have an Institutional requirement that all undergraduate students, regardless of discipline, must undertake a major research-based assignment in their final year of study. I have been awarded a Leeds Institute of Teaching Excellence to work with Faculty across the University to introduce capstones into their programs and to create pan-university multi-disciplinary capstone opportunities for our students.
I do not do things by halves. My vision is not just limited to Leeds, the UK or the Biosciences, but Global!
I have created a global Community of Practice for stakeholders across the world to work collaboratively together, sharing ideas, expertise and resources, to co-create and introduce inspirational multi-disciplinary, multi-national team-based capstone projects that address globally relevant issues into undergraduate and taught postgraduate degree programs across the world. I want to make it a truly global and inclusive community, to include all stakeholders- students, alumni, educators, employers, NGOs, social enterprise, Global North or South, all disciplines or sectors….The list is endless.
If you would like to join this Community of Practice and be part of this exciting journey, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please share this opportunity amongst your colleagues, networks and across your Institution. The broader the membership, the greater the collective benefits for all.
If we pull this off, the benefits for students, other stakeholders and Society will be phenomenal. Our graduates would be truly global graduates, equipped with the skills and attributes to become leaders in whatever field they enter. As Faculty, we would be providing an exceptional educational experience for our students, properly preparing them for the workplace. Universities, through student capstones, would be better able to address their civic and societal responsibilities and missions. Employers would have graduates able to take their businesses forward and to thrive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. We would be creating solutions to some of the complex problems facing mankind.
Figure 1: Research and capstone project opportunities available to students
1. Gray, A. (2016). The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/
2. Lewis DI (2011) Enhancing student employability through ethics-based outreach activities and OERs. Bioscience Education 18, 7SE https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3108/beej.18.7SE
3. Lewis DI (2020a). Final year or Honours projects: Time for a total re-think? Physiology News 119: 10-11.
4. Lewis DI (2020b). Choosing the right final year research, honours or capstone project for you. Skills career pathways & what’s involved. https://bit.ly/ChoosingBioCapstone
5. Lewis DI (2020c). Final year research, honours or capstone projects in the Biosciences. How to Do it Guides. https://bit.ly/BiosciCapstones
6. Lewis DI (2020d) E-Biopracticals (Collection of simulations & e-learning resources for use in Bioscience practical education. Available at: https://bit.ly/e-BioPracticals
7. Lewis DI (2020e) Open access data repositories (Collection of large datasets, data analysis & visualization tools). Available at: https://bit.ly/OADataRep.
As the 2020-21 academic year ended, I sighed with relief. I had survived the switch to an online teaching format, wearing a mask while teaching when I had to have a class in-person, and the loss of my father. But as quickly as my sighs of relief subsided, I began to wonder, “What will happen next academic year?” Will I be teaching all my classes in-person, will my classes be online, or will I have some classes or labs online and others in-person? As these questions swirled in my head, I began to reflect on this past year. Teaching online was tough. There were activities that bombed. But there were activities that rocked. And there were activities that could be improved. And believe it or not, there were some great things that came from teaching online. Some had to do with content, some had to do with skills, and some had to do with community. Now comes the challenge of choosing what I should take with me, and what I should leave behind? And as I reflected, I realized there are two experiences from this past year I want to use this year, whether I am teaching in-person or online. One had to do with the idea of community and the other had to do with skills. While others came up, I decided to be kind to myself and focus on two.
1. Forming an Inclusive Scientific Community
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had never taught a course online nor had I taken a class online. I had attended webinars but had never presented an online seminar either. Now I was being asked to teach courses online to students I had never met, and these students had never met each other in-person either. When I reflected on my teaching in-person, I realized I had never worried about whether I knew the students immediately or whether they knew each other. I assumed their presence in class with me and with the other students would allow relationships to form and a learning community to be built. But now they were just images on a screen and often, just names since cameras were not always on.
Now that I was teaching online, I had to be more intentional about building a learning community. This was to help not only me but also my students. Research has shown that students do not just want to be faces in a crowd (1, 2). They want to be recognized by the professor and by their peers. And as the pandemic progressed, they needed this more personal interaction. Creating a community would foster interaction and make students comfortable to share in an online environment (1, 2). To begin, I included icebreaker activities to allow me and the students to learn more about each other. And these icebreakers were not a one and done activity. They continued throughout the first several weeks of class. As the semester continued, polls or questions replaced the icebreakers. These were questions anyone could answer. They could be content questions, well-being checks, or simple questions about plans for the weekend or favorite ice cream. All meant to foster community. When in the classroom, peer interactions can be observed by the instructor. In the online classroom, it was more difficult to monitor interactions and those who were uncomfortable with group work could disappear when the breakout rooms opened.
Including these activities online allowed me and the students to feel like we were in this class together. While I was not a student, I was no longer “The Sage on the Stage.” We, the professor and the students, were in this online learning community together. When an online activity was successful, we celebrated together. If something did not work, what discussed the activity and what we could change. This community was most evident when my father fell ill and then passed away. These students I had been working with stepped up and helped me during this emotionally challenging time. While I still guided their learning, they took more on themselves, and they helped each other and me. The entire year we had spoken about grace and that we all needed to give and receive it. They gave me grace when I needed it most. Who would not want to take this community into the in-person classroom?
2. Promoting Scientific Soft Skills
With the initial move to online teaching, one of the challenges faced was laboratory experiments. Many laboratory exercises require specialized equipment (3). In my case, this was the Biopac Student Lab System®. One of the benefits of this system is that students get to record physiologic data on each other. The cost of and logistical issues regarding supervision and liability for the Biopac® home system prevented me from using this as an option. However, one of the benefits of the Biopac Student Lab System® is the free access to sample data and the free analysis software for downloading offered by the company (Figure 1). Additionally, as I had been using these systems for over 10 years, I had previously recorded student data at my fingertips (Figure 2). Students could download the software to their personal computers and open any shared data for analysis. While the students were not actually recording the data themselves, this provided an alternative for learning about physiological processes with data from subjects. This also allowed me to have the students focus more on how they presented the results and how they discussed the science behind the results. We could focus on the writing of the results and the understanding of the science because the students were no longer focusing on the possibility of user error as to why they did not get the results expected.
As I was reflecting, I realized that with lab exercises moving online that the reduction in focus on learning how to use equipment and collect data was a positive (3). This allowed students to focus on writing and understanding what they were writing. This made me think that I could expand the use of pre-recorded data to include other skills such as inter-rater reliability and statistical analysis. As stated earlier, in my physiology courses, students consistently would state user error was the reason they did not get the results they expected. While this may have been the case for some experiments it was not always the case. This is where sample raw data, whether the raw data was from the equipment company or recordings from prior years’ labs, is useful. Students can be provided with the same raw data to be analyzed. Students could then compare results with each other and determine if they were following the same directions for analyzing the data. The closer the values to their peers suggested they were analyzing the data in a comparable manner.
Another interesting opportunity that pre-recorded data provides is the ability to discuss statistical significance in a more detailed fashion. Often when students are collecting and analyzing their own raw data, there is not enough time to aggregate the data for statistical analysis. Now students could all be given multiple sets of raw data to analyze, these results could be aggregated, and statistical analysis performed. In upper-level courses, students can then learn when to use t-tests versus ANOVA, learn about post hoc tests, and p-values. As journals and professional societies recommend more in-depth presentation of statistical analysis, this can be added as well. In more introductory courses, this could be modified to focus on mean and standard deviation. Finally, by focusing on inter-rater reliability and statistics, students can further improve their writing of the results and discussion sections.
One of the reasons labs are often popular is because students get to be the scientist. I do not want this to disappear when in-person labs return. I still want students to learn how to use the Biopac® systems and record data from each other when we return to class; seeing the excitement in the students’ eyes when they see the ECG or EMG recording of their own bodies is one of the joys of teaching. But I want to find ways to keep the positive aspects of using pre-recorded data. Could this be a pre-lab activity? Could I take one or two of the experiments we do and provide the data rather than record the data? Could I have students record their own data and exchange the raw data with each other? I am still trying to decide how this might look in my class. Maybe that is my next blog?
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic created a flurry of change in a short period of time. In higher education, we are not used to this quick a change. And as humans, we are typically resistant to change. However, I suggest that instead of being anxious to return to the way we used to be that we look back at this time as a needed push for some change. We should use this opportunity to see what we changed that made our teaching better.
1. Faulkner SL, Watson WK, Pollino MA, Shetterly JR. “Treat me like a person, rather than another number”: university student perceptions of inclusive classroom practices. Communication Education. 2021;70(1):92-111. doi: 10.1080/03634523.2020.1812680.
2. Kirn-Safran CB, Reid AC, Chatman MM. Peer Mentors Prove to be Strong Assets in Virtual Anatomy & Physiology Labs. Imprint. 2021:16-8.
3. Xinnian Chen CBK-S, Talitha van der Meulen, Karen L. Myhr, Alan H. Savitzky, Melissa A. Fleegal-DeMotta. Physiology Labs During a Pandemic: What did we learn? Advances in Physiology Education. 2021;In Press.
Figure 1: Image of free download Biopac Student Analysis Software®. Note you can review a saved lesson, analyze sample data from the company, or analyze data collected in the lab.
Figure 2: Image of pre-recorded spirogram with vital capacity indicated. Values are indicated in the boxes on the top of the spirogram.
Opening image Creator: Victoria Bar; Credit: Getty Images
|Melissa DeMotta, PhD is currently an Associate Professor of Biology at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA. Melissa received her BS in biology from Lebanon Valley College. After working for three years at Penn State’s College of Medicine in Hershey, PA, she received her PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Following postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Arizona and Saint Louis University, Melissa joined the Biology Department at Clarke University. Melissa currently teaches Human Physiology and Exercise Physiology to physical therapy graduate students and undergraduates. She also enjoys teaching non-majors life science courses as well.|