Enrich yourself, and the world

November 30, 2007

I have been in favour of making research an integral part of learning ever since having an inspiring experience of independent research during my own undergraduate years.

When I started actively encouraging undergraduates to do original research in their coursework the outcome was very pleasant: no more tedium of marking large piles of predictable and uninspired essays churned out in response to standard questions. Even the unexceptional students often taught me some new things.

However, I also encountered a frustrating problem: after assessment, these valuable essays simply sat in piles collecting dust, then eventually got thrown out. I wished to get them published, but the reality was that most students who were working within the confines of a course unit or even a final-year dissertation were not quite able to bring their research up to publishable standard.

This frustration served as a catalyst for a pedagogical experiment, the fruits of which have recently been published as a scholarly monograph. I was the director of this project at University College London, joined in its later stages by Catherine Jackson. How was such a project possible at all, and what are its implications for teaching and research in various academic fields?

The core of our innovation was the mechanism of "inheritance": each cohort of students passed on its work to the next cohort for further improvement. For this purpose I reshaped an existing final-year course unit, called "Topics in the history of the physical sciences". A flexible and multi- faceted research theme was needed, as we had students with a broad range of backgrounds and interests.

Effective for that purpose was the genre of "object biography", well explored now in popular science but much less in academic history of science. The chemical element chlorine seemed a promising subject, as it has been involved in a wide range of interesting controversies. We traced the life of the element from its birth as "dephlogisticated muriatic acid" in the laboratory of Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1774, via various disputes regarding its elementary nature and its atomic weight, down to its notoriety as the first major chemical weapon in 1915 and the disputes regarding the environmental effects of organochlorine compounds including DDT and Agent Orange. Other episodes included the first detection of solar neutrinos, and the curiously difficult establishment of bleaching and disinfection techniques.

At all stages of our work we had to use unusual and innovative methods, often improvising. The first challenge was to convince students that they were really going to produce new knowledge, not merely deliver the "right" answers I already knew. To that end it was important that I was not an expert on the particular topics in question, although I was knowledgeable and skilled enough in the general subject area to be able to guide the students' work.

This principle of "removed expertise" was most strikingly applied in the project on "chlorine chambers". That work began with a few mysterious lines from a popular chemistry book, Man and the Chemical Elements , by J. Newton Friend (Griffin, 1961): "Very small amounts of chlorine in the air help to ward off colds and to relieve them when once they have gained a hold." Friend noted that even US President Calvin Coolidge had submitted to chlorine treatment, but gave little further detail and no sources.

After a good deal of initial struggle, David Nader and Spasoje Marcinko unearthed a wonderful story of how chlorine chambers were promoted by the US Chemical Warfare Service in a bid to prolong its own existence after the First World War.

The mechanism of inheritance worked out as I had hoped, for the most part. For instance, the work on the history of chemical disinfection proceeded in three steps. First, Elinor Mathieson started off with a good survey of early short-lived attempts at chlorine disinfection dating back to the late 18th century. Fiona Scott-Kerr inherited this work and gave it a clearer shape with her idea that disinfection became established only when it was backed up by the germ theory of disease. And then Anna Lewcock fleshed out that story by focusing on the cholera epidemic of the early 1830s, and finding subtler themes such as the conflict between chemists and physicians.

Not all cases worked out linearly. Often multiple students wanted to work on a given topic simultaneously, requiring a division of labour rather than a sequential method of working. The mode of work had to be worked out creatively at each juncture.

Setting the course structure also required some creativity. For example, initially we were stuck with having to have an exam in the course, as there had not been sufficient time for the bureaucratic process to change the assessment format.

We turned this to our advantage by using the exam as a way of forcing students to learn about each other's projects. This worked out so well that I decided to keep the exam in subsequent years. Small-group tutorials for students working on similar topics were also helpful for drawing students together. And inheritance was strengthened greatly by handing down all the research notes (which were assessed), as well as the final products.

I am now planning the next instalment of the project, on the theme of "Electricity: innovation and invention". This time, the course will also be open to second-years, which will allow interested students to continue their work as part of their third-year dissertation, and to strengthen the diachronic community by having the previous year's students present when the next cohort take the course.

Our experience confirms that learning can take place through knowledge production, going beyond knowledge acquisition. Medical students treat real patients and trainee hairdressers cut real people's hair. There is no reason why trainee scholars should not learn their trade by producing real knowledge.

Despite recent efforts at reform, our education systems still embody the notion that students must first be trained by passively taking in existing knowledge before being able to produce original work. I, on the contrary, believe that knowledge acquisition and knowledge production can be combined into one process at an early stage. Even pioneering programmes of undergraduate research tend to make it a preserve of the best and the brightest. In our project, original research was made a routine part of an ordinary undergraduate programme, which could be of benefit to any competent and hard-working student.

Our book demonstrates the feasibility and desirability of research-based instruction. I hope its accessibility will make it an ideal showcase to encourage students and teachers elsewhere to tackle similar challenges.

Hasok Chang is reader in philosophy of science at University College London. An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Medicine, Technology and War is available from the British Society for the History of Science.

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