Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences for Science Students

This past spring, the Ontario government announced a new Career Kick-Start Strategy aimed at helping secondary and post-secondary students develop real work-related experience to use on a resume after they leave their educational institution. In the post-secondary realm, the Career Ready Fund has been created to assist universities and colleges in creating career-oriented learning experiences and related supports for students and recent graduates. This, of course, is a good thing. But what does this plan mean for students who might have an interest in pursuing further education and research? The federal government has made their commitment to strengthening scientific research in Canada quite clear. By commissioning the Fundamental Science Review and appointing a Chief Science Officer, we can be hopeful that the government will continue to invest and fund future research, which means funding students who wish to take this path. However, how do we encourage students to pursue this field? If Canada wants to be a strong leader in the scientific research, we need to make sure we’re supporting the researchers of tomorrow in their undergraduate careers in order to get them there. 

It wasn’t until third year that I experienced the biggest ‘aha’ moment in my university career. A course I took was designed to tell a story about how scientists and people researching in the field have led us to the knowledge that we have today. The professor walked us through various experiments that were designed to answer specific questions about the problems those researchers were curious about. He laid it out as if it was an elaborate choose-your-adventure book, where certain outcomes would logically determine what your next step should be. It made sense.

It was here I realised that being a researcher doesn’t have to be scary, or elitist. It just involves someone seeing a question in the scientific, or non-scientific, realm that needs to be answered and can come up with a coherent plan to do so. Of course, it is not easy. Researchers have to work hard to gain the necessary knowledge and keep up with the information being published in their field. It is also not cut and dry; scientists have to be creative. They have to have the ability to think outside the box. However, the problem is that conceptualising these big questions takes practice, and I don’t believe that undergraduate students are given opportunities to practice these skills or explore their ideas early enough in their studies.

At present, students are required to attend labs in their courses, but these labs often tend to be repetitive and require students to follow step-by-step instructions. Of course, these skills-teaching labs play an important role in the students’ knowledge, but are often not designed to introduce students to the research field. Teaching labs may be limited in terms of funding and the equipment available to them, but I think that there is a certain level of creativity on the students’ behalf that could be added to really acquaint them with research design.

For example, a student might have a real knack for genetics and excel in those classes, but they may not be the best at more advanced chemistry.  Their grades in chemistry reflect this, and they’re discouraged to pursue higher education to obtain a job in scientific research because they don’t believe they have the necessary skills. However, this doesn’t mean that the student couldn’t offer insightful and important research to the field of their choice, if given the opportunity. If students were introduced to exploring and practicing research design earlier on, this ability could be more polished by the time they must make the decision whether or not to continue with their academic studies.

Sometimes students may have the opportunity to experience working in a research lab through volunteer work, or by completing an honours thesis, but this type of experiential learning should be available to students throughout their university careers. Not only would it enrich students’ learning experiences, but it would provide them with the skills necessary to conduct worthwhile research. This would, then, translate to graduates entering society that can provide a direct return on investment.

This might mean expanding co-op programs for upper year students, but experience in research design and exploratory lab work should be introduced early on so students can feel inspired by the material they’re learning and be able to connect it to their future goals.