"In my opinion, the primary aim of any undergraduate introductory science course - whether in biology, chemistry, physics, or earth sciences - should be to enable students to appreciate and participate in science as a special way of knowing about the world". Our goal as teachers and educators should be to expose our students to the discovery process and to excite them about challenges at the frontiers of knowledge." "I conclude that it is way past time for us to completely redesign our undergraduate introductory science courses, so that all students come into direct contact with science as inquiry and are forced to develop their own understanding of what science is, and what it is not". Bruce Alberts, ASM President, 1998, Cell 92, 291-294.
These words addressed to educators by Bruce Alberts over a decade ago are, if anything, more important today (1). Of students entering our nations colleges and universities about half drop out of school, and of those who remain, about half change their major at least once. Elsewhere in his Cell article, Alberts attributes this sort of attrition to fact laden lectures, and "cookbook" style laboratories that do little to introduce students to the process of science, much less leave then prepared to design and carryout investigations of their own.
There is a growing body of evidence that students who participate in undergraduate research experiences not only have lower attrition rates, but benefit in a variety of other areas relevant to academic achievement and success (3,4,5,8). Among the benefits documented in various studies are, thinking and working like a scientist, gains in research skills, and a stronger interest in research as a career choice (8), improvement in GPA (3,8), development of oral and written communication skills (8, 11), more rapid employment in their chosen field after graduation (3), a higher acceptance rate in graduate schools (3), higher initial salaries (3), improved ability to deal with frustration and to adapt to failure (9,11). Other advantages reported are the development of critical thinking skills, the ability to work with the ambiguity of open-ended questions, an ability to apply skepticism to the daily flow of information, and an appreciation of what it takes to create new knowledge and the ability to move "seamlessly" from the undergraduate to the graduate school environment (10). The students themselves rate the improved advising and mentoring associated with the faculty/student relationship as one of he most important advantages of their research experience (4). An additional advantage to both student and mentor is the fact that the results of undergraduate research efforts often result in presentations at local, state and national meetings and in publications in refereed journals (3).
Wenzel gives one definition of Undergraduate Research as "an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original, intellectual, or creative contribution to the discipline (6)." By original, it is generally conceived that this implies the generation of "new knowledge" (7).
While most faculty members would probably agree that research experiences are a valuable adjunct to the education of undergraduate students, a lack of time, funding and the ability to gather the necessary materials and experimental protocols may frequently represent a formidable barrier to their willingness to assume this responsibility.
This chapter introduces a growing resource of laboratory exercises in biofilm microbiology that can be used by students and their mentors to design and carry out a range of projects that should be within the technical and financial range of most undergraduate laboratories. Here, students will find construction projects, experimental protocols and application exercises which, together, constitute a "toolbox" for undergraduate research. The materials and techniques illustrated are derived from research equipment and protocols somewhat simplified to reflect the realities of high school and undergraduate teaching laboratories. These exercises have been vetted by teaching and research faculty at the Center for Biofilm Engineering, for their pedagogical appropriateness and scientific accuracy. Each has been field-tested, either by individual student-teacher pairs or by classroom groups. We suggest that teachers encourage their students to explore the Biofilms Online site as a starting point for the design and implementation of their own research projects.
Most of these exercises were originally designed with undergraduate student research in mind, but almost all of the exercises are equally applicable to entire laboratory sections. Whether used in a laboratory section or as an adjunct to individual undergraduate student research we hope these exercises will encourage your students to investigate the dynamic and endlessly interesting field of biofilm microbiology.
We operate on the principle that undergraduate research is not only the essential component of good teaching and effective learning, but also that research with undergraduate students is in itself the purest form of teaching (2).
Consultation and advise on incorporating these exercises into a new or existing curriculum is available at: firstname.lastname@example.org.