Project-based learning and action research are powerful pedagogies in improving science education. We implemented a semester-long course using project-based action research to help students apply biotechnology knowledge learned in the classroom to the real world. Students had several choices to make in the project: working individually or as a team, selecting a topic of interest, and targeting a local community group. To enhance teachers’ abilities to lead students through action projects, we describe the framework, provide class data, and discuss benefits and challenges encountered. This course could serve as a model of how project-based action research can benefit student learning in biotechnology.

Introduction

Biotechnology is an interdisciplinary subject that often involves medicine, agriculture, industrial technology, and commerce. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has defined biotechnology as the application of science and technology to living organisms or parts of them (e.g., microorganisms, enzymes, cells of animals and plants) to alter living or nonliving materials for the production of knowledge, goods, and services (Chabalengula et al., 2011). Our course within a biochemistry department focuses on the biochemical knowledge needed for topics such as genetic modification of food, forensic analysis, and stem cell research (Halverson et al., 2009, 2010; Rebello et al., 2012a; Witzig et al., 2013).

The diverse benefits of biotechnological processes highlight the need for students to be scientifically informed so that they can appreciate how biotechnology affects their lives and communities. The traditional instruction of biotechnology, limited in classrooms, also makes it difficult to engage students in using biotechnology meaningfully in real life. Active learning of biotechnology can involve students in serviceable activities in healthcare, agriculture, and industry.

To stimulate student learning and heighten curiosity, the National Research Council emphasized a new way of teaching and learning about science that reflects the science discipline and implies changes in what and how students are taught (Singer et al., 2012) and in how students are assessed (AAAS, 2011). Studies have demonstrated that a project-based approach has the potential to enhance student-directed scientific inquiry by using technology and collaboration (Krajcik et al., 2000; Schneider et al., 2002; Alozie et al., 2009). Moreover, students can achieve deeper understanding of science content and processes when they engage in inquiry (Schneider et al., 2002). In action research, students ask questions, assess needs, design plans, and carry out actions to benefit a particular group (Bradbury & Reason, 2003). In this project-based action research, students encountered five requirements based on scientific inquiry and action research (Krajcik et al., 2000; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006): (1) assessing the needs of a community (related to biotechnology by driving questions), (2) designing and planning actions to address those needs, (3) making specific actions to benefit the selected community, (4) gathering and analyzing information and data from those actions, and (5) reporting findings and reflection. Collaboration and conversation, including discussions with classmates and with adults outside the classroom, are also considered essential for students to build teamwork skills and share understandings of ideas (Krajcik et al., 2000; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006; Alozie et al., 2010).

Here, we describe how we employed project-based action-research feature as a framework for the design and enactment of a community action project and discuss what we have learned. The project was developed for one semester of an undergraduate, nonmajors biotechnology class. The course challenged students to choose a topic, assess the needs of a community related to that topic, design an action addressing the needs, and document their work in a multimedia format of their choice. The project aimed to be meaningful to students by connecting to the “real world” of the community, requiring students to witness reactions of citizens regarding biotechnology ideas from class, and putting ownership of the inquiry in students’ hands.

Description of the Community Action Project

Overview

Arguably, the highest form of learning stems from not just knowing something, but using it and applying it in the real world to help someone else learn, change their mind, or act differently. In this unit, students had opportunities to relate their own interests in a biotechnology issue to communities by (1) choosing a topic, (2) assessing the needs of a community and planning an action related to biotechnology, and (3) taking action and documenting it. Student work was scaffolded by framework questions in each step (Table 1) to generate the action plan. If students could not complete their action because of extracurricular demands, they could choose to write a 15- to 17-page, double-spaced research paper for step 3, based on their needs assessment. The length was effective in discouraging those who might take advantage of the option – only one student submitted a paper, and it was well developed. Moreover, students could choose to work individually on the project or in a group of up to five. The larger the group, the higher the productivity expected. Class time was provided to help students find people who shared an interest in similar topics. Class time was also used to plan, get feedback from instructors, and discuss ideas. The project entailed a small time commitment outside of class to collect data – approximately 2 hours, depending on the type of project.

Table 1.

General guidelines given to students at the beginning of the project. These questions scaffold students to plan their project (in conjunction with details for each step).

Step 1: ProposalStep 2: Assessment & PlanStep 3: Selection of Either the Action or Paper Option
ActionPaper
  • Topic and community group selection related to biotechnology.

  • What are your plans for assessing the needs of the community?

  • Describe the action you are planning.

 
  • Specific community group that you will work with for your action.

  • How did you assess the needs of the community?

  • Describe your interview, survey, etc. to find out the opinion or understanding of your community group to help you plan the action.

  • What questions did you ask? How many people were surveyed?

  • Explain in detail your findings, and how your findings will influence your plan of action.

  • Plan your action. What will you do to inform, influence, help, and/or support your community group?

 
  • Provide final action resources, for example final PowerPoint slides, final letter, final poster.

  • Provide documentation of your action, for example photographs, audiotape, e-mail response from congressperson, thank-you letter from students, written change in opinion or knowledge of community member.

 
  • Write a detailed formal paper of 15–17 pages, double spaced.

  • In the paper, analyze the data you collected in your needs assessment, and describe your plan and expected outcomes.

  • Research the topic using at least 7 reputable references.

  • Reflect on what you learned from conducting this project and how you learned it.

  • Give specific examples.

 
Step 1: ProposalStep 2: Assessment & PlanStep 3: Selection of Either the Action or Paper Option
ActionPaper
  • Topic and community group selection related to biotechnology.

  • What are your plans for assessing the needs of the community?

  • Describe the action you are planning.

 
  • Specific community group that you will work with for your action.

  • How did you assess the needs of the community?

  • Describe your interview, survey, etc. to find out the opinion or understanding of your community group to help you plan the action.

  • What questions did you ask? How many people were surveyed?

  • Explain in detail your findings, and how your findings will influence your plan of action.

  • Plan your action. What will you do to inform, influence, help, and/or support your community group?

 
  • Provide final action resources, for example final PowerPoint slides, final letter, final poster.

  • Provide documentation of your action, for example photographs, audiotape, e-mail response from congressperson, thank-you letter from students, written change in opinion or knowledge of community member.

 
  • Write a detailed formal paper of 15–17 pages, double spaced.

  • In the paper, analyze the data you collected in your needs assessment, and describe your plan and expected outcomes.

  • Research the topic using at least 7 reputable references.

  • Reflect on what you learned from conducting this project and how you learned it.

  • Give specific examples.

 

Choosing a Community & Topic

The first step of the project was to figure out a topic of interest and how it might relate to a group in the real world. Students were given examples of potential projects and a list of topics and groups to consider as a starting point (Table 2).

Table 2.

Prompts provided to students for choosing a project.

Suggestions for TopicsPossible Community Groups
  • Genetic disease

  • Genetic testing

  • Forensics

  • Cloning

  • Reproductive technologies

  • Stem cell research

  • Genetically modified plants

  • Genetically modified animals

 
  • Schools

  • Retirement home

  • Campus cafeteria

  • Farm

  • Grocery store

  • Doctor’s office

  • Political office

  • Business planners

  • After-school program

  • Radio station

 
Suggestions for TopicsPossible Community Groups
  • Genetic disease

  • Genetic testing

  • Forensics

  • Cloning

  • Reproductive technologies

  • Stem cell research

  • Genetically modified plants

  • Genetically modified animals

 
  • Schools

  • Retirement home

  • Campus cafeteria

  • Farm

  • Grocery store

  • Doctor’s office

  • Political office

  • Business planners

  • After-school program

  • Radio station

 

Assessing the Needs of a Community Group

The second step of the project involved assessing the needs of a group that had a stake in the topic. Students could conduct background research, interview stakeholders, or collect survey data to accomplish this. To better assess the targeted community’s knowledge, students conducted varied approaches – such as questionnaires, e-mail surveys, site visits, and interviews – demonstrated in the examples below. It was not necessary to conduct a major research investigation for this nonmajors class, but the results were intended to provide students with evidence to inform their action.

Plan an Action Related to Biotechnology

Next, students employed their findings in planning steps to inform, influence, help, and/or support their community groups. Students provided all action-plan materials and concisely documented their work in the community (Table 3).

Table 3.

Overview of final action requirements.

1. GROUP. Provide final action resources, for example final PowerPoint slides, letter, poster. 
2. GROUP. Provide documentation of your action, for example photographs, audiotape, e-mail response from congressperson, thank-you letter from students, written change in opinion or knowledge of community member. 
3. INDIVIDUAL. One-page summary paper of your reflection for the project. One paper per individual, not per group. Discuss the following points:
  • What did participants learn? How do you know?

  • What did you learn from doing this project? Give specific examples.

 
4. INDIVIDUAL. Print out Participation Form and hand in one hard copy per individual. 
5. GROUP. Include all of your previous work and feedback for steps 1 and 2. Put your project together in a pocket folder. 
1. GROUP. Provide final action resources, for example final PowerPoint slides, letter, poster. 
2. GROUP. Provide documentation of your action, for example photographs, audiotape, e-mail response from congressperson, thank-you letter from students, written change in opinion or knowledge of community member. 
3. INDIVIDUAL. One-page summary paper of your reflection for the project. One paper per individual, not per group. Discuss the following points:
  • What did participants learn? How do you know?

  • What did you learn from doing this project? Give specific examples.

 
4. INDIVIDUAL. Print out Participation Form and hand in one hard copy per individual. 
5. GROUP. Include all of your previous work and feedback for steps 1 and 2. Put your project together in a pocket folder. 

Additional Teaching Suggestions

Group evaluation of peers and instructional feedback were important for effective group collaboration (e.g., see Table 4). Deadlines were spaced for the three steps of the project (Table 5) to allow for instructional feedback. This enabled instructors to provide written feedback at the completion of each step. Scoring guidelines for step 3 were given to support students in reporting their actions or paper effectively. Instructors also met with students throughout the project as needed.

Table 4.

Participation Form in final report.

Questions for AllQuestions Only for Groups
1. Overall, how effectively did you or your group work together on this project? 3. Give one example of something you learned from the group that you would not have learned alone. 
2. Did you enjoy this project? Suggest one change to make in the project assignment next year. 4. Suggest one change the group could make to improve. 
 5. Name your group members below, including yourself, circle the level of contribution, and give specific details of contributions. (member name): A lot – Okay – A little – Nothing 
 6. Contributions to the project were: 
Questions for AllQuestions Only for Groups
1. Overall, how effectively did you or your group work together on this project? 3. Give one example of something you learned from the group that you would not have learned alone. 
2. Did you enjoy this project? Suggest one change to make in the project assignment next year. 4. Suggest one change the group could make to improve. 
 5. Name your group members below, including yourself, circle the level of contribution, and give specific details of contributions. (member name): A lot – Okay – A little – Nothing 
 6. Contributions to the project were: 
Table 5.

Biotech action research timeline.

Research activityTime frame
1. Choose your topic, community group, and your team (20%) Weeks 4–5 
2. Plan an action related to biotechnology (50%) Weeks 6–9 
3. Action or Paper (30%) Weeks 9–12 
Research activityTime frame
1. Choose your topic, community group, and your team (20%) Weeks 4–5 
2. Plan an action related to biotechnology (50%) Weeks 6–9 
3. Action or Paper (30%) Weeks 9–12 

What We Have Learned

Seeking methods to enhance science teaching and learning at the undergraduate level, we realized that adding project-based action research to the biotechnology nonmajors course benefited students in several ways. It encouraged students to develop skills in collaboration, investigating questions and analyzing data. The course also appeared to benefit problem-solving skill development, interest in applying academic knowledge to the real world, and excitement in contributing to local community issues. Although challenges arise with any authentic group project, students were able to work through all stages with concrete guidelines and instructor feedback. Below, we illustrate representative projects and discuss benefits and limitations.

Evidence of Action Projects in Biotechnology

We show two projects with excerpts from steps 1, 2, and 3 and the multimedia reports that students developed to inform or influence their community groups (Figures 1 and 2). These two projects had topics that were common among the students.

Figure 1.

Example project of stem cell research.

Figure 1.

Example project of stem cell research.

Figure 2.

Example project of genetically modified plants.

Figure 2.

Example project of genetically modified plants.

  • Sample of project 1: Stem cell research (one student) (Figure 1)

  • Sample of project 2: Genetically modified plants (team of three students) (Figure 2)

Benefits

Students were challenged to develop skills in interpreting and applying knowledge in an action plan based on a community’s needs. During their execution of project-based research, students were encouraged to connect their personal goals with academic study and to solve real-world problems. Through action research, they developed positive attitudes toward community engagement and action, along with problem-solving skills and deeper understanding of social issues. Moreover, students gained experience in communicating and explaining scientific knowledge to public audiences of various levels and ages through brochures or presentations.

The project also focused on students’ collaboration and teamwork skills. Students constructed a shared meaning of concepts and experiences, drew on others’ experiences, and reflected on their own thoughts. In general, this provided opportunities for students to form connections with peers, faculty, and community members while conducting worthwhile projects.

Students were provided ownership in choosing topics. Several options within the project seemed to empower students with a sense of personal efficacy and commitment, since they could integrate their own interest and strength into biotechnology research. Whatever options they chose, students would earn research experience related to real-world application.

It appeared that the semester-length project with a specific time-frame for the three steps fostered commitment by the students. They were aware of the timed nature of their assignments and were not allowed to procrastinate. The three-step guideline questions and instructor feedback were helpful in preparing students to implement their action plan and benefit from the project.

The action project triggered excitement and linked inquiry, curiosity, and creativity to the learning process. Therefore, students were more curious about the uncertain aspects of the project and eager to explore their topic through research. Developing students’ curiosity and creativity may be crucial in affecting later interest in science fields. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says it best: “In the end, it is the people who are curious who change the world.”

Limitations

Adding action research to the biotechnology course appeared to aid the students, teacher, and community. However, at the initial stage, students may find it difficult to find partners and design an action plan. Therefore, instructors adopting this project approach may need to provide office hours to assist students and give them sufficient time to work on their projects.

The projects were designed to benefit the students. While communities perhaps benefited as well, for example by becoming more educated, long-term collaborations and partnerships are needed to institute real change in communities. A potential next step would be to develop partnerships with a few of the community groups so that they could work with students each semester. This would also lessen the difficulty of choosing and networking with particular groups each semester.

Action projects may bring up time- and group-management challenges. Giving advice for planning projects and then grading various topics can be time consuming. Also, ensuring fair grading of group projects on different topics could be difficult, and the scoring guide and participation form were helpful in this regard.

Conclusions

Biotechnology is a challenging topic because it requires an understanding not only of general biology but of molecular genetics as well. When using traditional teaching methods, many students struggle to understand the fundamentals and to connect their new knowledge with real life (Halverson et al., 2010; Rebello et al., 2012b). We found that the incorporation of a semester-length project into our biotechnology course promoted greater student interest in and commitment to the class, as well as independent learning and cooperation among students. Although conducting project-based action research is challenging, it will help students learn modern science while making critical connections to the real world. Student evaluations and feedback of the experience have been very positive. Here are two examples from the Participation Form:

  • This project overall was a great learning experience that helped me to do better and learn more about the topic that I chose.

  • Schools should have projects like this more often. This type of project helps students to develop their thoughts and ideas, and they also help to educate people.

Last but not least, although this action project focused on biotechnology, the process can be adapted to other cross-disciplinary fields.

References

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