Innovative Courses Spur Interdisciplinary Learning


In the last year, undergraduates participating in Bigelow Laboratory programs have sailed on oceanographic cruises in the Atlantic Ocean, surveyed kelp forests throughout the Gulf of Maine, and published original work with senior research scientists. Now, the institute has expanded its hands-on education experiences to include innovative new undergraduate courses on earth systems chemistry and seafood forensics.

"I find students are most excited and engaged when they are learning through authentic research situations without predetermined results,” said Ben Twining, Henry L. and Grace Doherty Vice President for Education. "And that’s a real strength of Bigelow Laboratory – everybody here is doing original research, and there are many opportunities for students to be part of it."

Both new courses are being offered at Colby College, a liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine. The two institutions have partnered in the past to offer unique courses and internships. By teaching semester-length courses on the college's campus for the first time, the scientists hope to engage more students in research-based learning with Bigelow Laboratory.

Twining has collaborated with four professors there during the last year to develop and teach the new earth systems chemistry course for freshmen. Taught over two semesters, the class is designed to take the place of both introductory chemistry and geology, and it seeks to make abstract ideas tangible by illustrating essential chemistry concepts with real-world examples.

"This is a new type of college course, and it has been really rewarding to create," Twining said. "We’ve had to ask ourselves, what do students need to know, and how can we connect the concepts that are typically sitting in two different textbooks?"

Twining is a specialist in ocean trace metals, and he studies global biogeochemical cycles as a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory. He tries to bring the uncertainty and excitement of original research to his undergraduate students by leading them in real experiments for which even he doesn’t yet know the results.

The Colby professors teaching alongside Twining likewise each bring to the class their own specific expertise and experiences in the fields of chemistry, geology, and geochemistry. Being taught by a team of five scientists with diverse backgrounds exposes the students to a variety of career paths and potential role models.

"A big factor in whether people stay engaged in science fields is making personal relationships with people in that field, and that’s a real benefit of this approach," Twining said. "Our goal is to create a more meaningful first step for students getting into earth sciences."

The impetus to bring real-world problems into the classroom likewise inspired Senior Research Scientist Doug Rasher to develop a new course this spring. After reading about seafood mislabeling in the news, Rasher realized that the interdisciplinary nature of the problem made it a perfect candidate for an environmental studies course.

Working with current news articles and new scientific literature, Rasher created the seafood forensics course that examines the myriad angles of mislabeled seafood – including ecological and economic impacts, human health risks, and policy implications. The second part of the course explores potential solutions to this global problem, and the students are being trained by Senior Research Scientist Pete Countway to use a cutting-edge molecular method that will allow them to test whether a piece of fish purchased from a local store is in fact labeled correctly.

The interdisciplinary nature of the course has attracted students from freshman to seniors, with majors as diverse as computer science, English, economics, and environmental studies. Rasher believes this interdisciplinary atmosphere has created a rich classroom environment for the students to develop and share their different perspectives on the complicated issue of seafood labeling.

"This course is both giving students exposure to a variety of disciplines in the environmental sciences, and is also helping them to realize that many of the problems we face in society are inherently interdisciplinary and complex," Rasher said. "Because our class is focused on a real-world issue, the students are really excited to dig into the problem and discuss solutions."

In January, Rasher taught another innovative course focused on real-world issues – a monthlong Colby January term class entitled "Global Change Impacts on Marginal Marine Ecosystems." He led the course with Senior Research Scientist Nichole Price and Ben Neal, an assistant professor at Colby College who was formerly a member of Price’s research group.

The team brought a group of 20 Colby College students to Bermuda for 10 days to assess local coral reef health using a variety of techniques, including snorkel-based reef surveys. After conducting their fieldwork, the students returned to Bigelow Laboratory to analyze and present their results. In February, Rasher also taught an introductory scuba diving course in the swimming pool at Colby College to help students interested in scientific diving learn essential skills.

"Students want place-based, hands-on learning opportunities, and I’m passionate about finding ways to bring the real world into the classroom," Rasher said. "I’ve been thrilled to work with such motivated students and see them delve into topics that interests them."

Several of the students currently taking Twining and Rasher’s courses will return to Bigelow Laboratory to conduct research over the summer, as well as study in the Changing Oceans semester-in-residence program. The researchers hope to continue working with as many students as possible, in order to help both the students and the scientists get the most out of their respective experiences.

"A big part of Bigelow's goal in our education programs is to grow opportunities for students to learn through these authentic experiences in science," Twining said. "We want to provide as many students as possible with unique, rigorous research experiences at an early stage in their careers."