Evidence has continued to mount suggesting that including research experiences within courses lead to improved student outcomes, even at the introductory level. Outcomes that improve can include greater skills, student confidence, and persistence in science. It can be challenging to find authentic but feasible research experiences to involve introductory students in. We are fortunate at Smith College to be able to involve students in important research in the Mill River that runs right through campus. The Mill River is interrupted by a dam maintained by the college that creates our iconic Paradise Pond. Paradise Pond fills with sediment over time, and thus the sediment must be removed in order to maintain the pond. In one of several research modules for our introductory biology labs, we monitor aquatic macroinvertebrates in the river to assess how Smith College’s evolving sediment management plan affects organisms in the river. Students in the course learn Environmental Protection Agency inspired sampling techniques, gain experience identifying a diversity of living organisms, calculate different water quality and diversity indexes, practice graphing and doing statistical analyses, and interpret and communicate their results.
The ongoing monitoring of the macroinvertebrates in the Mill River is an important, authentic research question. The fact that the data they collect are used in reports for state and local regulators makes this module especially engaging and exciting for students. While it is too early to be able to assess long-term outcomes of including this course-based research project in introductory biology, it is clear from student responses and evaluations that most of them felt they learned a lot in the class. Students especially appreciated that the research we did “meant something more than a pre-structured experiment with expected results” and “it felt like we were really doing important work.” A remaining challenge is that many students feel the course is too demanding and challenging for an introductory-level, one-credit course. While giving students an authentic research experience is more work for the students and the instructor, the rewards in terms of increased learning, engagement, and excitement are worth the effort.