What if the undergrads ran their own class with no faculty present?

Earlier this fall we had an excellent presentation about how to make physics classes more interactive. The legendary speaker, Carl Wieman, see this, talked about how students should think first, then get feedback, discuss, then perhaps the lecturer could move on to a discussion of the ideas. It was an excellent talk.

But this is not the only way to teach. What if the undergrads discussed papers and research with no more senior people present? Might this not let them explore unafraid into the significance of the papers they read or the projects they do? Is it really so dangerous that they might sometimes convince themselves of something incorrect? There are tradeoffs in everything, so I think sometimes it is a good idea to have the undergrads alone run the class, with no one present who is not a student.

We have been doing this for some years in the summer. The summer group meets weekly and discusses papers. They often also read Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, for which I wrote study questions years ago (see earlier blog). An undergrad is in charge to keep things on task. Usually there is also a scribe that keeps track of anything they want more information on.

Before the summer began this past year, Erica Ryu came to me and pointed out that she would be the most senior undergrad for the summer and she volunteered to run the summer journal club. I had not even begun to think about it, so I was particularly grateful to Erica for helping. But after all, besides her studies, and research, she is a Korean drummer of talent, Samul nori. She wanted us to choose about 10 papers that would exemplify work in the lab and concepts the group should be sure about. We chose them together. Then she decided to get the conversation with the undergrads going by writing her own study questions for the papers. It was a very effective class, but let Erica tell it in her own words:img_0869-1

“What was the last Youtube video that you watched?” was the best icebreaker question I found online. As with any first meeting, I knew we would go around the circle and introduce ourselves and I was hoping that an interesting icebreaker would potentially initiate conversation and lessen the awkward silence. Frankly, looking back now, whether we even had an icebreaker question wouldn’t have made a difference given that everyone was too sleepy and still too unfamiliar with each other. However, with anything new, all the little details seem to matter, so the night before the first summer undergraduate journal club meeting, I spent too much time Googling possible icebreakers.

During the past summer, I had the fortuitous opportunity to lead the Strassmann-Queller’s Summer Undergraduate Journal Club. Being the only undergraduate who had researched the previous summer and was staying for the current summer, I felt that it was my responsibility to lead this journal club. And while I had leadership positions at extracurricular activities, I was more anxious for this journal club. To be an effective leader, you have to be able to design what you want do, and then distribute and complete tasks to accomplish a goal. Leadership positions for an extracurricular activity tend to better develop your management skills, because the structure is usually already in place – you simply have to decide what you want to do with the structure and oversee the project as you direct members to carry out particular tasks. As a result, there’s already significant amount of guidance and limitations to what you do. Leading this journal club, however, meant that I had to establish the structure myself, which turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. Building the structure means that you have to consider many small details in order to prevent the group from crumbling; in my case I had to consider what to read, how much to read, what sorts of discussion questions, and so on. Even small details like location and times were important too. I had much more freedom to lead the club how I wanted and do what I wanted, at least to a degree – I had guidance from my mentor and from Professor Strassmann. It was a different sort of leadership role, one that many undergraduates don’t get to experience, but is tantamount to work outside of college. What I learned as a leader of the journal club is unique to my experience and also makes it that much more invaluable.

Due to the nature of the position, I can see that it pushed me to be both a better scientist. Each week, we read a chapter of the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and a paper relevant to the lab. I distributed discussion questions to each person, and asked them to come prepared to answer their assigned discussion questions. I personally wrote all of the discussion questions for the paper, so having to do this forced me to read each paper carefully and thoroughly in order to gauge what I wanted everyone to gain from the reading. As a result, I gained a much better understanding of our lab’s model organism and the big concepts that our lab is studying, and I was able to apply this knowledge to my own research and conduct better experiments.

However, not only did it improve leadership skills and enhance my knowledge of the lab’s research, but I also observed that it also significantly benefited the undergraduates participating in the lab. I probably speak for the all of undergraduate students when I say that it’s very difficult to speak up and ask questions at lab meeting in front of the postdocs and graduate students – it’s really intimidating! It’s hard to know whether you’re confused because you lack the prior knowledge or because it’s legitimately confusing. The undergraduate lab meetings eliminate that intimidating feeling because you feel like you’re with your equals – sure, the senior might have taken a few more classes than the freshman, but it still feels like you’re equals. As a result, everyone is more likely to ask questions and everyone is in fact better able to understand the concepts. If I compare myself during my very first semester in lab to the undergraduates who started this past summer, it definitely seems as if they were able to sooner develop a strong understanding of the lab’s goals and how their personal research fits into the general concepts.

The journal club ultimately benefited all those participating, and is absolutely an experience that I recommend. It sped up the adjustment process for the new undergraduate students, so they now have a strong foundation for their projects, something that is important but isn’t easy to develop. However, not only are we all better scientists, but we are also great friends. The undergraduates from this summer have closer bonds compared to last summer’s, which means that we are more comfortable asking each other questions and talking through concepts. The journal club also rapidly pushed my personal development: it only took me less than two months to morph my leadership abilities from clumsy and slightly scatterbrained to efficient and effective. And while there’s always more to learn, I am proud to say that I learned skills and knowledge that are applicable to my future endeavors. I am unbelievably grateful to have had this opportunity and although I don’t think that I’ll be able to think of a more creative icebreaker question, I hope that my summer experience will help me approach future journal clubs with a little less anxiety and a little more confidence.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Teaching, Undergraduates and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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