The University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study how learning and mentoring occurs in a research lab.
According to the center’s director, Dr. Matthew Brown, the work will touch on both social science and humanities research.
“The common assumption is that research experience in the laboratory is a crucial educational activity, but there’s actually been very little research about that,” he said.
Brown, associate professor of philosophy and history of ideas in the School of Arts and Humanities, said the research will be done mostly through direct observation, rather than by surveys.
The $350,000, three-year grant is the second NSF award directed to the Center for Values, as well as to the School of Arts and Humanities. A project in 2013 focused on ethical decision-making among student engineering research teams.
The investigation team for the new project includes Brown as principal investigator, as well as Dr. Magdalena Grohman, associate director of the Center for Values; Dr. Eun Ah Lee, research associate at the center; and Dr. Nicholas Gans, a former UT Dallas clinical associate professor who is now division head of Automation & Intelligent Systems at The University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute.
Researchers will look at how laboratory experience prepares undergraduates who plan to enroll in graduate school, as well as how current graduate students learn and interact with newer, less-experienced lab members.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research done on the graduate education experience, such as the transition between undergraduate and graduate school,” Grohman said. “We want to document the experience that occurs for such a student in a lab setting.
“We will be looking for what they do with each other as they collaborate, work on their own, interact with their supervisor, as well as how they solve problems and how they deal with the various experiences they have during the lab work.”
The research will focus on a single engineering research lab, with a researcher maintaining a regular presence in the lab for an entire year, along with video documentation of the lab. The coverage could expand to a second lab as the project progresses.
“We’re there for a long period and gathering lots of rich data. But we’re not comparing a bunch of labs; acquiring general knowledge about what happens in all labs is not the goal of the project,” Brown said. “The goal is to get a sense of what kinds of learning activities are possible. That could help build the kinds of research studies that would be more generalizable.”
The researchers hope to identify practices that could eventually be included in an assessment that will capture what students actually learn and experience in labs.
“We hope that by understanding the activities in one or two labs we can potentially develop measures that could then be used in future experiments on learning,” Brown said.