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To understand science as it is practiced, rather than solving already well-formulated problems from a textbook, students must be engaged in problem-posing. To appreciate this, students must learn that they could stand in the field or laboratory forever and no problems would come to them pre-posed. In BioQUEST (Quality Undergraduate Education Simulations and Tools in Biology) we try to help students understand the multiple issues involved in the posing of a problem, including “interestingness”, significance, and feasibility, as well as the problems resulting when bias creeps into problem-posing.
After having posed a problem, students need to experience open-ended problem-solving. Real scientific problems do not have answers at the back of the book. The scientist entertains multiple competing hypotheses and makes inferences over a long series of experimental observations. Scientists do not arrive at a final answer; research is abandoned for a variety of reasons, including time, resources, and most importantly when the scientific research team is “satisfied”, i.e. when the solution is “useful” for some purpose. Students can, and must have this problem-solving experience to appreciate the nature of scientific answers and to develop heuristics for achieving closure to scientific problems.
Research is not complete, no matter how many experiments have been conducted, no matter how many puzzles have been solved, until peers outside of a research team are persuaded of the utility of the answers. Persuasion is a social process and an essential one for students to experience in order to understand the nature of scientific theories and paradigm shifts. Therefore, they need to experience peer review as a professional activity. The modules in The BioQUEST Library allow student groups to easily transfer their data, graphics, working hypotheses, and analyses into word-processing, spreadsheet, and scientific graphics software to build scientific journal-style manuscripts which can be reviewed by other students and instructors.
We believe that if students are to understand how biologists think, they must have opportunities to experience science from the point of view of a practicing biologist. This 3 P’s approach to the teaching of biology is vital to the laboratory research experience of a student, and such experience is central to a deep understanding of how scientific knowledge is created, modified, and used. Our students must not only understand and appreciate the strengths of science, they must comprehend its limitations as well.