Teaching & Learning


Using research led teaching in fieldwork

The ability to design and implement your own experiments is an essential skill for all scientists, says Dr Lawrence Bellamy (Biosciences Teaching Fellow, UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment).


24 July 2015

However, this is often ignored in undergraduate curricula.

Teaching students how to design research early on

Students in the Biosciences department can take three field courses all of which require students to design their own investigations and producing outputs similar to those of a postgraduate student.

In postgraduate studies, students in the sciences are regularly required to design and implement their own experiments.

However, as undergraduates students do not receive many (or any) opportunities to do this.

For many students, their first experience of actually doing research is their final year project, but even here there is often limited scope for students to be in complete control of the design and implementation of the project.

The Biosciences department at UCL runs three field courses all of which have a shared focus teaching students the skills required to design their own research projects.

All of these field courses follow a similar structure.

  • Students are first given an orientation to the field site of interest and its ecology.
  • They are then required to design and implement their own research project.
  • At the end of the project, students give an oral presentation on their project and finally write up their project in the form of a scientific paper.

These are the same sort of outputs that postgraduate biology students are regularly required to produce.

Starting field work as first year undergraduates

Biosciences students first encounter fieldwork during their first year undergraduate studies as part of the assessment for 'BIOL1007: Fundamentals to Biology'.

Students spend one week at Blakeney Point, which lies on the North Norfolk coast.

The field trip occurs at the end of the first year. As such, students are expected apply knowledge and skills learnt throughout the year to their research project.

For example, students have to apply field sampling methods taught in 'BIOL1008: Methods in Ecology and Evolution' and analyse their results using statistical tests taught in 'BIOL1002: Quantitative Genetics'.

Second year

During their second year, biosciences students can choose to take two different field courses;

  1. 'BIOL2002: Field Course in Environmental Biology', taking place in both London and the Scottish Highlands
  2. 'BIOL7008: Ecological Genetics', taking place in Southern Spain.

The course structure and assessment for both of these modules follows are very similar pattern to that in 'BIOL1007: Fundamentals to Biology'.

The key difference is that being second year students, the quality of the output is expected to be of a higher standard.

For example, students will be expected to use more complex analyses which would require statistical software such as R which is taught in 'BIOL2015: Computational Biology'.

Benefits that reach beyond the sciences

This approach of introducing students to the research process can be universally applied both within and beyond the sciences.

  • It encourages students to apply skills learnt from all their taught modules into a single research project.
  • It introduces them to the scientific process and the importance of scientific outputs such as presentations and papers.
  • Finally, it introduces students to the most rewarding aspects of science: the thrill of discovery!