Jane MacKenzie

  • Effective experimental project work and its role in developing the academic identity of bioscience undergraduates

    Jane MacKenzie, University of Glasgow, UK

    Graeme Ruxton, University of Glasgow, UK

    Session 2b, Tuesday 09.00

    Research paper

    Themes addressed:

    • Course and programme design
    • Skills development and lifelong learning

    Project work is an essential component of most bioscience undergraduate degrees; this is perhaps most significantly demonstrated by the almost universal final year project, which often contributes significantly to the student’s final mark. The ability to engage effectively with experimental project work requires the development of a number of skills including the ability to design, conduct and critically analyse experimental investigations and projects.

    In 2003/04, to support the development of such skills, a new component was introduced into the third year (of a four-year programme) curriculum of the zoology/aquatic bioscience degree at the University of Glasgow. The new course took the form of structured, group discussions where the students were asked to design and critique ‘mini-projects’ on some aspects of animal biology. The impact of this course on the students’ ability to undertake independent project work was evaluated by gathering assessment marks at the conclusion of one element of the third year curriculum – the ‘Insect Project’ – and through interviewing supervisors of these projects. The Insect Projects are short, student-led projects, undertaken by small groups of students to investigate one aspect of invertebrate biology. Student marks were significantly increased in 2003/04 relative to previous years and supervisors reported that the majority of students: engaged more successfully with the projects, required less supervision and that the outcomes of the projects were more successful than in previous years.

    To further evaluate the impact of the experimental skills course on the outcomes of the Insect Projects, in the 2004/05 session students were interviewed at the conclusion of the projects to investigate, amongst other things, their motivation and confidence with regard to the project and the impact of the experimental skills course.

    Analysis of the transcribed student interviews has revealed a number of themes related to the students’ experience of undertaking the Insect Projects. These themes include the impact of the projects on: the students’ awareness of the difference of this experience to their prior learning experiences and the students’ awareness of their own developing academic identity, ie they did not yet see themselves as scientists, but saw the projects as activities that contributed to their becoming scientists.

    An overview of the discussion sessions and their impact on the students’ ability to undertake independent project work will be presented. This will lead on to a discussion of the aspects of the Insect Projects that the students identified as different to their previous experiences and the impact of the projects on the students’ awareness of their own identity as scientists. Finally, meaningful elements of the projects identified by the students will be compared to Evan’s (1998) theoretical framework of student development and the concept of participation in communities of practice of Lave and Wenger (1991). Finally, the implications for curriculum design in the experimental sciences will be considered.


    • Evans NJ, Forney DS, and Guido-DiBrito F (1998) Student Development in College: Theory, Research and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
    • Lave J and Wenger E (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.