Performance Learning in the Natural Sciences
One of the purposes of institutions of higher learning is to help individuals prepare for professional success in their future careers. Mark Edmundson, professor in the Department of English at the University of Virginia, adds to this idea, stating that any student attending a college or university should be focused on “getting to know yourself, figuring out who you are and what you really want to do with your life” (PBS.org 2015). It can be difficult, however, for students to feel completely comfortable even after graduation without true hands-on experiences. Millikin University embraces the concept of partnering students with faculty members and experts to engage in their discipline beyond the traditional learning environments. Milliken is focused on helping students develop a sense of intellectual identity through Performance Learning. Through this philosophy of learning, students become their discipline. On graduation, they do not merely hold a piece of paper expressing knowledge in a subject but have become peers with their faculty mentors with real expertise and experience in their field.
Performance Learning is an intentional process of personalized instruction, collaboration, and engagement of students and faculty members. Performance Learning results in opportunities for all students to develop knowledge and skills in and beyond the classroom through professional engagement with individuals outside of the university. The three hallmarks of Performance Learning as it pertains to students include: (1) partnering with faculty members, staff members and fellow students to develop student-driven experiences that coincide with their chosen academic discipline; (2) requiring their engagement with outside individuals who can review their work in a purposeful and professional manner (i.e., third-party stakeholders); and (3) participating in reflective processes that advance their professional growth by critically examining the continuous cycle of doing, learning and becoming.
With these institutional definitions in mind, the curriculum in the natural sciences allows students to complete internships in professional settings (e.g., industrial businesses, local forest preserves, hospitals, ophthalmologist offices), encourages them to gain scientific research experiences in other countries and requires all students to complete undergraduate research. The long-standing tradition of undergraduate research is not unique to the sciences at Millikin; however, providing opportunities for students to be involved in the development and implementation of a project and being viewed as a scientist rather than as a student is one of Milliken’s strengths. Being a scientist involves much more than following a published protocol to perform an experiment. To learn what it means to be scientists, students must be involved in all aspects of research, including proposing a research question, designing an experiment in response to the question, collecting and analyzing data and, last, disseminating the results to the greater scientific community. This proposal-performance-presentation approach is more than methodology; it is an ideology. Millikin faculty believe that Performance Learning at its finest occurs when students are not only doing, learning and becoming but are involved in real-world risk at all stages of their involvement. On completion of this phase of their education, students have become the scientists they endeavored to be.
The Millikin University Approach to Performance Learning
Many students initiate their undergraduate research by partnering with faculty members to write original research proposals that will become students’ capstone research projects. The content of each proposal must be supported by relevant scientific literature. Written proposals have specific components similar to the guidelines provided by funding agencies and graduate programs. A student’s peers and professors review individual proposals as the research is initiated, providing feedback and suggesting modifications. More infrequently, external reviewers from funding agencies have the opportunity to review and critique proposals written by faculty members and students. This exemplifies a key aspect of becoming a scientist. One cannot merely dive headfirst into a project without becoming aware of what has been and is currently being contributed to the field of study, identifying where there are holes in one’s scientific knowledge base and then developing a means to fill those gaps.
Each student begins to make significant progress on his or her research project as development of the proposal is completed. Often, students and faculty members are co-learners in this process. The learning opportunities are not mere exercises with predictable results but are novel hypotheses and methodologies with real-world application. The student researcher is required to perform a minimum of three hours of research weekly per credit hour enrolled in their research courses, yet they often contribute far beyond that. Students participate in regular reflection, often revisiting and revising their methodologies to better answer their research questions.
Students intending to graduate are required to write a final report discussing the literature, data and results obtained from their research. Students also present their work orally in partial fulfillment of their senior research seminar course. This presentation includes an explanation of the context of the work, the techniques used, the data and analysis of the results obtained. The student is expected to reflect on what he or she learned about the science associated with the research, rather than simple regurgitation of the “how” aspect of the project. Faculty members in the natural sciences encourage their students to present their work at the Millikin University Undergraduate Research Poster Symposium, where alumni in the students’ disciplines critique the quality of their work. Students are strongly urged to give an oral or poster presentation at state, regional or national meetings and are involved in the dissemination of their work through manuscript preparation, when applicable.
The Learning Story
One of the Performance Learning environments created at Millikin is interdisciplinary in nature and has to date involved 12 Millikin undergraduate students, three local high school students, and four faculty members in the development and testing of novel chemotherapeutic delivery mechanisms for the treatment of breast cancer. The delivery mechanism being developed is analogous to the giant wooden horse the Ancient Greeks used to defeat the Trojans. A chemotherapeutic drug is encapsulated in a cell-like liposome and coated by hollow gold nanoparticles. This composite would be injected into the area of the body containing cancerous cells. Heat or radiation would be used to collapse the gold nanoparticles and rupture the liposome, releasing the chemotherapeutic chemical to kill the cancerous cells noninvasively. This delivery method would protect the majority of cells in the body and eliminate many of the negative side effects of traditional chemotherapy.
The student collaborators have been heavily involved in the development of real proposals (including grant proposals) and are essential to the hands-on experimentation and revision of protocols. These student scientists are exposed to all aspects of the research, from synthesizing the components of the Trojan horse to testing for cell death. Students ultimately select which component of the project they want to understand in depth, whether from the chemistry or biology side of the scientific process. As part of the proposal-performance-presentation approach, students have disseminated their work through presentations at several local, regional and national meetings, as well as through publications in international journals. This research program involves third-party-stakeholder interactions at all levels, just as would be encountered in the real world. The student collaborators are not just learning how to do science; they are engaged researchers providing critical information to a global discussion of cancer treatment.
Twelve undergraduates have worked on this research project. Six students were Honors students, five majored in chemistry, and seven majored in biology. The students who have participated in this research program have given 21 presentations, six of which were at regional scientific meetings and five at national meetings, including the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society and the Sigma Zeta National Convention. Six of the presentations received awards, including a Best Oral Presentation Award at the 2014 Sigma Zeta National Convention. One biology student was the first author of a peer-reviewed journal article with Dr. Schroeder that compared the toxicity of three chemotherapeutics on breast cancer cells (Kern and Schroder 2014). Dr. Schroeder currently has one manuscript under review and is preparing two additional journal articles with other student collaborators.
Excellent Performance Learning opportunities ultimately lead to professional success after completion of students’ undergraduate education. Of the seven students who graduated from Millikin University after contributing to this project, two are employed in industrial positions in a pharmaceutical company, one is employed as a laboratory technician at an environmental testing laboratory, two are in professional programs (i.e., medical school and veterinarian school), one is applying to medical school and one was accepted to a nanoscience Ph.D. program.
This research program has also been supported through internal and external funding sources. Dr. Schroeder received the Howard L. Gravett Endowed Chair position at Millikin, which partially funded the biological aspects of the projects. Dr. Rammelsberg and Dr. Barnes received a $7,500 educational grant from Project SEED (funding agencies: American Chemical Society and the Decatur-Springfield Section of the American Chemical Society) to mentor three economically disadvantaged high school students as they contributed to the overall research during the summer 2015 term. Finally, another student received a $500 research grant from Sigma Zeta National Math and Science Honor Society.
The collaborative project presented in this paper is a powerful example that exceeds experiential learning with outcomes that are evaluated by third-party stakeholders. Students who engage in scientific research at Millikin collaborate with a professor to propose a unique research project, perform the research under the guidance of a mentor, and regularly present their findings to other scientists. External evaluation of student research is shared with the individuals who complete the work. The constructive feedback received from the third-party stakeholders helps students recognize drawbacks in their research and allows them to revise their experiments or interpretation of their results with new knowledge. This model, also known as Performance Learning, is an institution-wide philosophy that truly prepares students for professional success on graduation.
Kern, K. M., and J. R. Schroeder. 2014. Comparison of cantharidin toxicity in breast cancer cells to two common chemotherapeutics. International Journal of Breast Cancer 2014 (September): 423059.
PBS.org. 2013. What should be the real purpose of college? PBS Newshour Extra. September 5. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/daily_videos/real-purpose-college/.
About the Authors
Jennifer R. Schroeder is Associate Professor of Biology, Paris W. Barnes is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Chemistry, and Anne Rammelsberg is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois..