CUBE: Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Education
Bridging the gap between science and science education is one of the core objectives of the gnowledge lab. We designed the CUBE project with exactly the same 'protocols' that the gnowledge lab follows: no selection; minimal instruction by a teacher; excessive communication and interaction; senior students mentoring junior students; logging what happens in the lab; frequent opportunities to talk and write; etc.
The CUBE project started as a 5-week hands-on research experience based on ‘Simple Model Systems’, like daphnia, drosophila, snails, earthworms and crows during the summer of 2012. Operating on the no-selection criterion, we had a total of 18 students in the first phase from 4 different colleges in Mumbai and suburbs. Not only the diversity of the colleges (from St Xavier’s College in south Mumbai to much unassuming colleges of the far off suburbs of metropolitan Mumbai, such ase Ulhasnagar and Kalyan), but also the sub-disciplinary diversity of the participants proved to be a great asset for our model of collaboration. With the short-term objective of maintaining these inexpensive simple model systems, the participants pursued some interesting, sophisticated and front-line research questions on the molecular basis of learning and memory, on epigenetics, regeneration, decision-making, biological rhythms etc.
This model of undergraduate research was not just an “apprenticeship model’ in which students were trained in the course of a one-off workshop; it rather had a cascade effect: more colleges were continuously being roped in. Each of the participating colleges was required to establish a “simple model systems” based research lab in their respective centres and conduct similar types of workshops for their neighbourhood colleges, to initiate them into Collaborative Undergraduate Biology (CUB) Research. They were encouraged to submit research proposals, in collaboration with students of neighbourhood colleges (and with their respective teachers as CUBE Teacher Fellows) for the Obaid Siddiqi CUB Research Start-Up Award/Grant, a small start-up grant to defray initial expenses to establish model systems through the DST CSI project funds. As mentioned earlier, the model systems and the techniques introduced are extremely inexpensive and yet raise sophisticated questions. Developing newer model systems has also been part of the CUB Research program in these centres. Some of the student groups took initiative to develop fireflies and spiders as new model systems.
The student mentors were able to conduct CUBE workshops for students of neighborhood colleges not only during the two weeks of Diwali holidays, but also for an intense 6 days during X’mas vacation.
A pilot collaborative investigation of the motor activity profile of various animals through self-recorded videos as well as videos published online was carried out as a preparation for launching a citizen science project. Over 20 undergraduate students (participated. Ten students from Delhi University also participated and recorded the motor activity profile of 154 birds through video analysis. The work was done on an online platform developed by the lab: https://metastudio.org/cube/. Preparations are ongoing to launch citizen science projects specially crafted for wider participation of teachers and students from across the country.
The undergraduate research experience should form a rich learning ecology with student-centric features. The typical features of such an ecology are that it is open-ended, interactive, inquiry-driven, collaborative and context-bound. Such an experience has high levels of student-student and student-faculty interactions, ready connections of the subject matter to topics of interest and learning that reflects aspects of scientific inquiry and evidence-based thinking. This package is ready now as a seed for dispersal! This is a seed for cultivating scientific culture and expanding the participatory science base in the country.
Is this a remedy for science education only for undergraduate students? No. To quote Arunan (soul of the CUBE project): “Science in India is made or unmade in undergraduate colleges. The quality of undergraduate education is directly reflected in the quality of science education because school teachers are graduates of the same colleges.” We are convinced that science teachers in schools should have done at least proto-scientific research before they become teachers. We have little faith in in-service teacher training, unless proto-scientific research has been done by them. If a person has had no exposure to evidence based scientific inquiry, that person should not enter a school class room to teach. Therefore, we decided to gather all the available energy in promoting participatory investigatory projects, including citizen science projects. Another lesson from the CUBE project in this context is: training teachers along with students in their own school/college is more effective than alienated in-service training.