At Stanford University this spring, one lucky group got to live out a dream of students everywhere – regularly having class outside.
“We are testing out a new way of teaching how to do biological research,” said Tadashi “Tad” Fukami, a young ecology professor at Stanford. He has collaborated with the biology department to create a new twist on a classic undergraduate class: the biology lab.
The class is a core experimental laboratory that biology and pre-medical students are required to take. Fukami’s creation is an alternative, pilot section of the class that makes nature herself into a laboratory.
Instead of donning lab coats and goggles, students in this class grab clipboards and hiking boots and head out into the field. Their study site? Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford’s own 1,200-acre nature reserve and biological field station in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The study system revolves around the ecology of yeast communities that grow naturally in the nectar of a local plant, the sticky monkey-flower, or Mimulus aurantiacus. Mimulus is a plant native to California that produces beautiful orange flowers in the springtime. Fukami and the students use a vast array of tools and techniques to ask a range of questions about the plants, the creatures that eat it and those that spread its pollen, and other factors that affect nectar yeast communities.
One Thursday afternoon this spring, lab partners Pooja Bakhai and Leah Stork meticulously counted flowers in the beautiful spring sunshine as they kept an eye out for caterpillars munching on the leaves of their Mimulus plants.
“It’s so nice to just get outside, do your own thing, and everyone does their own research question,” Bakhai said. “It’s just cool.”
The class, seeded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, has put an emphasis on inquiry-based learning, asking students to investigate their own research questions and formulate their own hypotheses. The idea is that by giving students the opportunity to be in charge of their own research, those students will be more engaged in the material and ultimately learn more than they would by following a “cooking recipe,” as Fukami calls more traditional scripted lab exercises.