CASE STUDY #6Interdisciplinary Laboratory Harvey Mudd College

In Harvey Mudd's Interdisciplinary Laboratory (ID Lab), all experiments include technique development, instrumental experience, question formation and hypothesis testing, data and error analysis, oral and written reporting, and, most importantly, the opportunity to explore in an open-ended way some of the details of phenomena that are familiar and of interest to students. In several experiments, the students visually study molecular interactions via molecular modeling software that is installed on the laptops they use in the laboratory. Finally, students are paired with a different partner for each module, developing teamwork skills in the process, and they share and discuss their experimental results after each module, gaining a sense for collective work in science.

A variety of assessment efforts have been used to evaluate the lab course, including student evaluations after individual modules and at the end of each semester. The student response to the course has been very positive, particularly in regard to the interdisciplinary nature of the experiments. At the end of the 1999-2000 course, an assessment exercise was administered to the ID Lab students and those enrolled in the regular chemistry lab sequence. The ID students were also completing the second semester of the regular chemistry lab course, and the other students were completing the first semester of the physics lab sequence. Thus, both groups had completed three semesters of lab coursework at that point. The result of the exercise, which was evaluated by a faculty member from another college, was that the ID students and the other students performed equally on many measures, but the ID students showed higher-level thinking skills for developing hypotheses, designing creative experiments to test those hypotheses, and identifying sources of experimental error (in-house assessment data).

A secondary outgrowth of the development and implementation of this laboratory has been faculty development. If students are to be encouraged in their interdisciplinary thinking, faculty must also think along these same interdisciplinary lines, an approach to teaching and learning that is not always natural or comfortable for college faculty. The ID Lab has promoted cross-disciplinary understanding by the faculty and, as such, is a positive step toward encouraging students to think about disciplinary connections.

Finally, the lab requires that students apply rigorous quantitative approaches to analyzing their experimental work, thus helping them see the importance of studying further mathematics and computer science if they are going to solve important problems in the life sciences. While it is too early to tell whether the lab will lead students in mathematics, computer science, or the physical sciences to pursue careers in the life sciences, or whether those who were planning on studying biology will take a more quantitative path toward their career, it seems possible that such results may occur.

Some of the laboratory exercises that ID Lab students conduct include:

  • Thermal properties of an ectothermic animal: Are lizards just cylinders with legs?
  • Molecular weight of macromolecules: Is molecular weight always simple?
  • Mechanical resonance of a high-rise building: Are seismic nightmares avoidable?
  • Carbonate content of biological hard tissue: Of what are shells composed?
  • Using digital logic to time a simple pendulum: What makes a good clock?
  • A structure-activity investigation of photosynthetic electron transport: How does a biological system convert physics into chemistry?
  • Synthesis and characterization of liquid crystals: Or when are liquids not?
  • A genetic map of a bacterial plasmid: Where are the restriction sites?

For more information:

From: 4, Engaging Students with Interdisciplinary and Project-based Laboratories

Cover of Bio2010
Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists.
National Research Council (US) Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education to Prepare Research Scientists for the 21st Century.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2003.
Copyright © 2003, National Academy of Sciences.

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