Joseph Lin created an honors biology project that has students investigate their interests while gaining real-world research skills.
Instructor of Biology,Reedley College in Reedley, California
MBt in Biotechnology, BS in Biochemistry
When Joseph Lin, began teaching biology at Reedley College, a public community college in Central California, he discovered something disconcerting. His students—many of whom are first-generation, first-year college students from various minority groups (including undocumented immigrants)—came to class with little preparation for higher-level research. They also had little opportunity to engage in it. “Community colleges are not really big proponents of peer research,” explains Lin. “There has always been a deficit on journal publications that come from community colleges.”
Lin wanted to give his students the tools they need to thrive throughout the rest of their education—and beyond. “When our students graduate, they will be competing with a lot of students who have a much stronger research background, and so one way to help expand their horizons—and to give them the experience they need to be more competitive—is a course with more of a personalized curriculum,” he says. “That can give them a little boost on their resume.”
As a result, the honors program at Reedley College migrated toward an inquiry/research-based teaching model to provide students with a personalized curriculum. This model not only allows student to collaborate but embraces co-teaching among faculty. It has developed into a team-taught environment that pools expertise from different faculty members. In his seminar-style research course, Lin has consistently guided students through the process of developing their own research projects on topics of personal interest. Their work culminates in a proposal, which students submit for consideration by local and national conferences, and a research poster that they present at these events if they are accepted to attend (see “Lin’s Students’ Presentations”).
Below are some of the ways Lin inspires his students to transform their personal passions into works of research that can help them advance academically.
“When our students graduate, they will be competing with a lot of students who have a much stronger research background, and so one way to help expand their horizons—and to give them the experience they need to be more competitive—is a course with more of a personalized curriculum. That can give them a little boost on their resume.”
-Joseph Lin, MBt, MS
Course: Honors Forum 3C: Natural and Biological Sciences
Course description: An interdisciplinary investigation of a contemporary issue through the perspective of those disciplines considered part of the natural and biological sciences. Content will vary each semester as determined by student research interests. Enrolled students will be required to present their research to an Honors committee as the culminating portion of the course.
Lin’s tips for nurturing researchers in community college
The honors students who walk into Lin’s science class have no shortage of passion for issues that affect their communities or the wider world. To build on that interest, this instructor has developed a personalized project, detailed below, that nurtures and educates this new generation of researchers.
Explain that the project is theoretical, not hands-on
Given that most community colleges do not have the infrastructure for sophisticated lab work, Lin’s students do not yet have the capacity to conduct their own scientific experiments, so he helps them get their feet wet in the realm of research by making use of existing data. He tells them, “We’ll analyze secondary data—stuff that’s already published—and look for trends or look for something interesting or a question that was not yet answered.” This eases students’ minds and helps them consider topics that might be outside their area of expertise.
Ease into topic selection during brown-bag lunches
“Topic selection is really almost the most important aspect of this course,” says Lin. When the course kicks off, Lin schedules brown-bag lunches with students for a group discussion of their interests. He also mentions topics or news items that might spark an idea. “It’s very casual—a couple of sessions of just talking and then kind of brainstorming. Then, as we’re talking, as we read some current events and articles, things pop up,” he says. Recent examples of selected topics include health risks associated with THC, increasing antibiotic resistance among livestock, and heart failure among diabetic patients in the California Central Valley.
Break down the anatomy of a research paper
Most of Lin’s students have never written a research paper, so he explains each of the key elements—title page, abstract, background, introduction, literature review, and so forth. He also provides a template with these elements, which students fill out when they write their own paper. “It’s a very simple backbone for them work on,” he says.
Demystify the jargon of scholarly writing
A review of the existing literature on a topic is, of course, part of this project. However, research papers are notoriously difficult to read, so Lin treats this stage a bit like a language class.
Before students dig into the academic papers, Lin delves deeply into each topic to learn as much as he can himself. Then he meets with each student—often during office hours—to go through their topic and identify some of the vocabulary terms associated with it. “There’s a lot of jargon they’ve never heard of,” says Lin. “I have students write out these terms and define them, so that they are comfortable with some of the key words.”
Use low-key class dialogues to discuss progress
During the class meetings, Lin might begin with a short lecture, but then he turns the class over to students, allowing them 10 minutes apiece to share their progress. “I open it up, and we talk. It’s almost a dialogue,” he says. “For most of students, having that layout discussion where everybody can just kind of feed in back and forth, and very casually do so, helps them,” he says. This is especially helpful for younger, more reserved students.
Submit their proposal and poster to a conference
Students are expected to generate an eight-page paper (proposal) and a 42-inch poster board that represents their findings. At this point, Lin raises the stakes of the assignment by having students submit their proposal to the Central Valley Honors Symposium and other local and national conferences for consideration. If their poster is selected, it will be displayed at the conference, where they stand beside it, addressing questions and discussing their research with attendees. “They get a chance to showcase their work and have that ownership, and I think that moment really solidifies what this course means to a lot of the students,” says Lin.
Invite colleagues to celebrate students’ work, too
To generate interest and campus goodwill, Lin also invites faculty to workshops held on staff and faculty training days, where he presents his students’ research through posters. “I think it’s important for buy-in to be really open and celebrate student success,” he says.
One happy by-product of the class is that Lin and his colleagues are exposed to an ongoing stream of intellectually fascinating material they might not otherwise encounter.
“Year after year, you’re working, you’re teaching, and it’s a great job—but you’re teaching the same content over and over,” he says. “This project gives faculty a chance to be more engaged and to revitalize some of their interests. There’s always new stuff to discover.”