Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Exposing Undergraduates to the Scientific Literature
In most biochemistry and molecular biology departments it has become almost an article of faith that part of a good undergraduate education involves exposing senior students to the latest papers in the scientific literature. These departments will mount several advanced undergraduate courses that focus on reading and discussing the latest papers in a field. The idea is to go beyond the textbooks and show students how science really works.
Nobody seems to ask the obvious question. How do experienced scientists go about reading the latest papers and how do they distinguish the wheat from the chaff? Given that much of the current literature is wrong or misleading, what is the value of getting undergraduates to read it without giving them the tools to read critically?
And where are the experts who can teach them how to interpret the literature? Has the average graduate student mastered the task? From my observations, I'd say probably not. Where do we get the idea that typical undergraduates can do it productively?
There's another problem. You need to have a solid foundation in basic concepts in order to appreciate and understand the latest technologies and the latest scientific advances. Often these foundations are sacrificed in order to expose undergraduates to the cutting edge research. This is because students can only take so many courses and in complex disciplines like biochemistry, cell, and molecular biology there are so many fundamental concepts that we barely have enough time to cover them all.
In an ideal world we would cover all the basic concepts and also give students an opportunity to do a research project where they gain experience in reading the latest results in a specific field under the guidance of an experienced mentor.