Research Experiences to Enhance Learning
What exactly is a research module? We envision modules as self-contained research projects that are designed to expose and engage students in open-ended research questions. These modules are designed to complement students' classroom experiences and promote research as a means for lifelong learning. Successful modules will examine research questions that include scientific content appropriate for inclusion in general, organic, or analytical chemistry courses. Modules that allow students to develop their own research questions, design experiments, collect and analyze data, and communicate their findings will increase student ownership and engagement. In addition, such modules will convey a robust description of the nature of scientific research. By addressing authentic research problems, students will participate in the creation of new scientific knowledge. Logistically, some research problems are better suited for investigation by large numbers of 1st and 2nd year students. Problems will be favored that require examination of a large parameter-space in terms of synthesis and/or characterization, as well as those that require observations spanning an extended period of time. The technology-assisted sharing of research data/results within and across institutions will further increase the possibility for generating new knowledge.
It is important to distinguish our concept of Research Modules from inquiry-based exercises and modules, for which excellent resources already exist from the NSF-funded Chem Connections project. While the two approaches have some common features there are also significant differences. Like inquiry-based learning, we view students as active learners who benefit from working, often collaboratively, on complex tasks in which they utilize their own problem-solving skills. We anticipate that student involvement with Research Modules will result in many of the same positive results already demonstrated for inquiry-based learning. However, unlike inquiry-based exercises, Research Modules involve students in an authentic, evolving research project that will lead to the creation of new knowledge. This is an important distinction. Research Modules, being grounded in real research questions, are better suited for promoting student ownership and engagement as they participate as co-researchers. Students' perceptions of themselves as valuable contributors to a publishable research project will increase motivation, as will a larger sense of shared purpose as these students join a community of like-minded faculty, staff, and student researchers at multiple institutions. We also anticipate that by stressing the connection to real research there will be an increased flow of students into existing undergraduate research programs. A potential downside of our approach is the effort required to introduce a new module every year, which immediately raises questions regarding sustainability. To address this issue head on, we will focus on modules where the research question at hand will vary from year to year, but the underlying chemical concept and the required suite of instrumentation are retained.