Rice University freshmen dive into scientific research

A sample of the feedback I provide for "scientific inquiry" assignments in which students investigate, using peer-reviewed research, the answer to a question with which they were inspired during assigned class readings

This semester, I have designed and am teaching a course exclusive to first-semester freshman entitled “Freshman introduction to local environmental science research”. The goal of the course is to introduce freshmen prospective environmental scientists to the world of scientific research. Special focus is given to work conducted by researchers at Rice University and the broader Houston area.

Everything that we take for granted about working in science can be revelatory for undergraduates. Most students have no idea about the sociology of science, so this course is designed not just to hone their skills in scientific thinking, but to introduce them to the daily lives of scientists in active laboratories. During the course, students explore three published, peer-reviewed articles by local teams of researchers. Research has shown that students learn and retain knowledge best when they are agents of their own learning, so the course involves lots of critical thinking, discussion, self-directed investigations, and writing. Students gain background information about the article subjects, investigate their own science questions, and learn about the techniques and methods by touring the labs and meeting the teams that produced the feature articles.

Thus far, we have discussed biochar’s impact on nitric oxide emissions and how this can influence regional air quality and associated health costs (Pourhashem et al., 2017) and how sequestration of organic carbon through subduction may have led to reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide and increased oxygen during the Great Oxidation Event (Duncan and Dasgupta, 2017). The visit to the high-pressure/high-temperature experimental petrology lab was particularly exciting. Next we are discussing Simkins et al., (2018), a study about how subglacial hydrological systems can destabilize ice sheets.

At the top left is a sample of the sort of personalized feedback students receive to improve their investigative skills and writing abilities.