Educating community-oriented biologists

Mecky Pohlschröder of the School of Arts & Sciences reflects on an SNF Paideia course that connects research conducted in the STEM field to the broader community, allowing students to observe the influences of their work outside of the lab.

Students explored cell biology, plant science, and neurobiology, all in the SNF Paideia-designated course Research in Biological Sciences and its Social Impact. The projects were grounded in scientific inquiry with an added community focus.

Anisa Robinson takes a photo of a tree while two other students look on.
Anisa Robinson, an undergraduate student researcher, takes a photo of a tree with cellphone app.

According to Mecky Pohlschröder, professor of biology in the School of Arts & Sciences and lead instructor, the vision for the class was to connect STEM research with a community component so that students who typically work in a laboratory setting develop an understanding of how their research both influences and should be influenced by underserved communities and populations.

“The first part of the course involved workshops on developing skills and confidence to access scientific research, literature, and the professional scientific community, components often overlooked in introductory STEM courses,” says Pohlschröder. “The second part, the community connection piece, was completely new this semester.” The students had to develop a relationship with external stakeholders, identify the needs of the community, and develop their research projects in response to the input they received from collaborators.

“At the beginning, it was not clear to the students why the community piece was important,” says Pohlschröder, “But by the end of the course, the students were excited because the experience showed them that their expertise as a biologist can lead to positive change; Penn values their contributions and the communities they come from; and community can be an important contributor to the research process.”

A student smiling in a lab wearing a lab coat.
Reginald Kwarteng is an undergraduate student researcher in the Wagner Lab. (Image: Wil Prall)

To facilitate the course development and the addition of a community component, Pohlschröder worked with Jean-Marie Kouassi, who led the community partnership piece, and Wil Prall, a graduate student in biology in SAS, co-developer of the research and laboratory component of the course alongside Pohlschröder, and teaching assistant for the course this spring. “Courses in the STEM fields are always taught in a very hierarchical way, with a PhD scientist teaching students through rote learning. In our course, the students went from sitting in a chemistry lecture to being in the driver’s seat, leading projects and listening to people with real-world experience of the issues at stake,” says Prall.

Read more at SNF Paideia.