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"Dude, where's our data?"

For Professor Geraint Thomas (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology), this classmate exchange succinctly captures the essence of project work and for many second year students, unfamiliar territory.

14 October 2015

“Is there a way to expose learners to the pressures of project work in a knowledge environment, reward engagement and at the same time ensure that they develop strong technical skills and sophisticated perspectives on complex scientific problems?” Professor Geraint Thomas (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology) shared his answer at a recent UCL Arena Exchange Seminar.

The context

The seminar began by breaking down the initial question of how to develop a rewarding and useful project experience. Namely, how to define its elements:

Project work: Most projects have the common elements of group work, working to a brief, producing deliverables and good management of relationships and time. The scope of a project involves balancing time, quality and cost usually within a professional context with people you probably haven’t chosen to work with

Reward engagement: Being sure to assess individual contributions to a project and therefore embedding an efficient process for performance review

Develop strong technical skills: Essential to a leaners education, increasingly today’s students must be able to enter the graduate market with technical capabilities such as utilising bespoke software and working well with others. They need to know how to manage data as well as research it

Sophisticated perspectives: Ensuring learners appreciate their curiosity is useful but may also be a hindrance by developing the awareness that bias is possible. Also important is understanding the limitations of knowledge and how scientific methods and results evolve over time.

The projects

Given these targets, Professor Thomas developed ‘Molecular Exploration Projects’ (MEPs) designed to give second year students, which can sometimes be overlooked, some exploratory project experience.

Teams explore a wide ranges of databases to retrieve information (e.g. about a specific proteins), apply various analytical techniques and methods and then present that information and insights as a webpage. A key feature of these projects is interdisciplinarity; using the knowledge of peers from different scientific disciplines to draw out potential solutions and ideas, thus making this type of project work adaptable in multiple academic contexts.

Beginning with 16 students and increasing over 16 years to host over 120 students, the projects were originally developed as individual work for modest size classes but now to serve groups of 6-8 learners. Because of this increase in numbers, problems needed to be considered and subsumed over the years in order to make the projects as efficient and beneficial as they were with individuals or very small groups.

For students their work on the Molecular Exploration Projects begins as part of a larger intensive “lab week” during which they take part in a mix of “wet lab” and “dry lab”classes.

Lab week takes place over reading week so that classes don’t collide with other courses. MEPs foundation work begins with a half day of computer training – students are set tasks which become increasingly more difficult (from using the databases and properly saving and archiving work to working on complex problem solving tasks).

Professor Thomas has created bespoke problem sets and allied webpages/toolboxes which are designed to help students learn by attempting them independently. Supplementary demonstrations at regular intervals and a crib sheet are also provided to ensure students fully understand before progressing.

This introduction is followed by one and a half days working in groups to begin the initial investigations. Professor Thomas has access to a Cruciform building “dry” lab, grouping four computers around table space, which provides a good project working environment. Staff and Postgraduate Teaching Assistants are on hand to assist students with any queries.

The output

The groups are required to create a webpage, or set of webpages, and to send a single hyperlink leading to all of their work for assessment. Training is provided on web content creation but the emphasis is that there are no specific requirements as to what must be included. However, the assessment criteria in circulated in advance which allows staff to discuss expectations and obligations immediately to ensure boundaries and themes are identified before submission.

Professor Thomas notes how the output is varied, with the submissions being very imaginative and creative: many include videos, animations and innovative web graphics. With the submission date around three or four weeks after the week’s classes end, students must continue to work together to create their final outcome. Many see the project as an opportunity to enhance their professional profile (particularly as the webpages are public) and so coupled with the lack of limits, some students go to great lengths to produce high quality work.

The feedback

In feeding back to students and providing a grade, Professor Thomas describes how he produces an individual score for the group task. Firstly, the project is marked by two members of staff against the previously-circulated criteria. This is followed by a video commentary, using screencast, describing what worked well and what didn’t.

The students are then peer reviewed by their group with each team member scoring their colleagues contribution from 1 to 5 (three being equivalent to their own contribution in all instances). They are asked to consider how they rank their fellow students’ efforts and participation in the group work from start to finish. A mean score is then generated for each person and this is compared to the mean grade for the entire group to generate a scaling factor for each group member.

The final calculated grade is then a combination of the individual scaling factor and the project grade. Professor Thomas manually inspects these for any potential discrepancies, such as friendship allegiances, however the groups are selected entirely at random and once the scores are released, if required, appeals are heard, explanations received and further investigation is undertaken where necessary.

The conclusions

The projects have proved a good introduction to research-based teaching and highlight many of the dimensions in the Connected Curriculum. Students work both in a team and individually to create high quality outputs by utilising their academic and professional skills – they think critically and make connections across their studies and work with staff to solve problems. MEPs also give students a ‘rehearsal’ in advance of their final year undergraduate project.

The projects are also a way of delivering a high quality student experience through the practical opportunity for learning they provide. The staff and student combined assessment also makes the work load easier for staff given the joined up, reciprocal approach. Professor Thomas notes how it is possible to manage large groups in undertaking intensive project work and how they are a process of continual adaptation given time, resources and numbers of students – all of which changes each year.