Freshman Research Course Proving to be a Good Model

A class that has James Madison University freshmen doing original research in large groups is beginning to become a popular model in academia, says Dr. Louise Temple.

For the past three years, Temple, a professor of integrated science and technology, and Dr. Steve Cresawn, an assistant professor of biology, have been teaching freshmen how to isolate viruses from soil. The class features hands-on laboratory work that college freshmen rarely get to do and discoveries they rarely get to make.

"People are trying to develop, not just for freshmen, ways that these big groups of people can actually do original research. That’s a big topic, there are workshops about it, and people in all science disciplines are trying to develop those kinds of things, because it’s clear that those are better learning experiences for students," Temple said.

The course at JMU began three years ago with a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. JMU was one of 12 schools to get the grant in the first year HHMI offered it. The HHMI funding for the original 12 schools will cease after this year, but Temple, Cresawn and Dr. Ron Raab, a professor of integrated science and technology who was added to the teaching team last year, are pursuing similar funding from the National Science Foundation.

"We are one of the lead institutions to try to get funding to move forward because most of these schools want to keep the course," Temple said. "They’d like to add that third semester, they’d like to do summer research, they’d like to do some outreach with it.  Some really great outreach can be given to high schools and community colleges. It works really well.  It’s a simple model, anybody could do it, and it’s powerful."

HHMI, which started the program to learn if students who get involved in science discovery early on will stick with it, collects the data from all the schools in the program and stores it in a database. A paper on the findings from the first year is in the works, Temple said.

Students earn three credits in the class, which runs a full year. Two credits are earned in one semester and a single credit in the other.  There were 30 students in JMU's inaugural class, 40 last year and 45 this year. A third section was added last year to accommodate the increase.

The benefits to students go beyond the classroom, Temple said. "They could get better internships because they have already done the research. They have the Howard Hughes name connected to their CVs, which is no small matter."

Stephanie Trapani, a junior who took the course her freshman year, is among former students who tout its value. "It gives you a good feel of the research and it introduces you to a lot of people that can get you into research," she said. "Even if you don’t want to go into research, it’s really interesting to know because it helps you with a lot of your other biology classes."

Laura Lorenz, another former student of the class, said she would recommend the class to anyone with an interest in research, lab work, computer science, genomics, viruses and science in general.

"I learned tons of lab techniques that I added to my CV, and got to know some really great faculty in the biology and ISAT departments," she said. "Both my increased lab experience and relationship with the teachers were valuable in helping me find internships and research opportunities."

In the first semester, students collect the viruses from soil around campus and run experiments. The second semester involves some sophisticated bioinformatics using a computer program designed by Cresawn. Other schools that received the HHMI funding are also using Cresawn's program.

The class, which has been advertised mainly through e-mails to incoming freshmen, is designed for students in any major. "We have tried to reach out to everyone," Temple said. "Political science, English, everything. Last year we had several nursing majors, a computer science major, a couple physics majors, chemistry majors. We had quite a mixture."

Temple said she hopes to advertise the class in the One Book next year in addition to the e-mails.

 

Oct. 20, 2010