Scientific Concepts and Methods

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This one-week course introduces students to pivotal scientific methods of biomedicine by not only focusing on their application, but also the key concepts, assumptions and inferences they are based on. The aim is to train students in critical thinking and scientific reasoning – be it when scrutinizing their own experimental projects or when interpreting scientific texts from peer researchers.

LET staff:
What triggered the conception of the block course “Scientific concepts and methods
Lecturers:
Vivianne Otto

A new focus in the Master programme Pharmaceutical Sciences was to provide students with key competences in scientific research. My own training as a researcher had consisted in learning how to apply lab techniques and statistical tests. What I learned about scientific concepts and approaches was based on my personal experience, observation and thoughts. A close friend of mine who was preparing her habilitation in English language and literature studies told me of a debate between Francis Bacon and Philip Sidney in the 17th century about the nature of science, its value in generating something useful, and the freedom of creativity. It made me realize that there was a whole world of thoughts and controversial debates by brilliant minds about science out there that are relevant for modern science and that I had never heard about before! I felt it was really important to introduce this kind of reflections and of multiperspectivity into our basic teaching of scientific competences.
LET staff:
How did you go about designing the block course?
Lecturers:
Vivianne Otto

Initially I just wanted to include some philosophy of science into the curriculum. There was some backlash against this idea, because people were not sure if this would be leading to anything useful. The suggestion by my colleagues was then to combine philosophy of science with some relevant, advanced scientific methodology. We also had very helpful input from the Critical Thinking Initiative.
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

The most important part was to find competent people for the students to talk to. This required identification of people with expertise in the field of interest. It is essential to present authentic and credible criticism of certain aspects of the subject matter. In fact, the participating experts considered it satisfying to be able to teach a critical view of their field of expertise. They don’t usually get to do this.
LET staff:
Would you say, looking back at your own work context, you would have benefited from this teaching approach?”
Lecturers:
Vivianne Otto

Yes, I think so. Knowing about different approaches and perspectives towards science and learn how to critically look at your own research questions, methods and data is really fundamental.
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

Within their disciplines, students often seem to be uncritical towards scientific methodology as well as towards scientific terminology and concepts. This might turn out to be problematic or at least limiting because thinking in a certain terminology has a strong influence on the way one approaches a problem.”
LET staff:
How did you organize the expert’s course contributions?
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

The three of us discussed the topics and concepts that we think are important to learn about (see course website below). Finding the right people took several attempts and discussions during the early phase of the course design process. The fact that all the contributors are still happy to teach the course, even for the third time in a row, I think shows that they enjoy the format.”
LET staff:
How did you manage to get students to do the critical reflections themselves and not just listen to the experts doing the criticizing”?
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

The students were asked to apply the discussed concepts to their own work. The block course is held in the second semester of the Master, so most of the students could apply their reflections directly to their own research project work.”
LET staff:
How much effort is the preparative phase of this course?
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

The full week takes quite some effort to organize. The teaching team consists of three people, Elvan Kut, Vivianne Otto, and myself, splitting duties between moderating the course, giving lectures, participating in the podium discussions, making the connection to the subject matter at hand, and the administrative work. Prior to the course, we collect and read the students' short descriptions of their project work
LET staff:
Is all this effort worth the investment?”
Lecturers:
Vivianne Otto

For many students this course was eye-opening in the sense that they realized that throughout their prior studies they had never learned how to critically look at their own work. They found this to be a transformative learning experience (see feedback video below) Also for ourselves as lecturers, I think this format helps us to take on a fresh perspective towards our own work.”
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

Yes, the student feedback was very positive throughout. Also seeing the joy with which everybody was participating in the block course, students as well as teachers, justifies the effort. Looking at the students’ output, the effort also seems to pay off in terms of gain in critical thinking competence.”
LET staff:
How exactly does this output look like”?
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

Part of the block course is an introduction to close reading of scientific literature. The students work in groups with texts, which are more or less controversial and one of which even got retracted later (though the students don’t know this beforehand). Many students reported that working critically with these texts and, in particular, working critically with their own results was a disturbing but also very rewarding learning experience. The newly gained critical perspective towards their own work is a pretty convincing output.
Lecturers:
Vivianne Otto

I think it works really well to present a state-of-the-art method, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and dissect the details of this method. This means understanding the method itself, but also what assumptions go into the measurements, what transformations and projections are needed to create the colorful images, what limitations the method has, etc. That the daily inputs from the invited experts and from philosophy of science are thematically matched facilitates the students' awareness of the intimate relation between modern hands-on scientific research and the broader conceptual issues from philosophy of science.”
LET staff:
What were the biggest hurdles or stumbling blocks during the course planning phase but also during the course itself?
Lecturers:
Norman Sieroka

The overall course planning took about a year. We had to work out many little details. However, the maybe most important and lasting effort was to have all the involved people sit down at some point before the course and have a conversation about the course content and concept. This way, we could ensure that everybody was really engaged and maybe even enthusiastic about the course. It was also important to identify overlap between the approaches and ideas of the different people involved in order to ensure a coherent course concept and a sensible ‘plot’ for the week as a whole.”
LET staff:
What is next for the scientific concepts and methods course?
Lecturers:
Vivianne Otto

Our biggest challenge is the scaling-up of the course. We started with 17 students in 2018 and will have 33 students signed up next year. We want to face this challenge by adding teaching staff. We will have two postdocs helping. They will lead discussions with smaller groups of students in breakout sessions. They will also help us with giving feedback to the students in their critical reflections on their project works. We are also thinking about ways of consolidating the learning experience from the block course, maybe offering a second opportunity for the students to critically reflect on their master thesis project.”
The newly gained critical perspective towards their own work is a pretty convincing output.
Prof. Norman Sieroka

Course Description

Name:
Scientific Concepts and Methods
Description:
The module is an introductory course fostering critical thinking about scientific concepts and methods in the natural sciences, particularly in pharmaceutical and biomedical research.
Objective:
Students
• have the ability to explain and reflect upon core themes in philosophy of science and cutting edge methods that are relevant in modern pharmaceutical and biomedical research.
• are able to explain the role experiments, models, images, and quantifications play in the formation of a theory, and the constitution and illustration of a scientific fact.
• are able to actively engage in a critical discussion about scientific concepts, methods and approaches in the field of biomedical research and philosophy of science.
• are able to critically evaluate the basic scientific assumptions, concepts and approaches underlying their own research project.
• have learned how to “closely read” and analyse a scientific paper and are able to present their paper analysis to an audience that is not expert in the research field.
VVZ:
511-0010-00L
Department:
D-CHAB
Level:
MSc
Format:
block course
Size:
ca. 30
Cohort:
D-CHAB
Type:
mandatory
Teaching Power:
3 + several guest lecturers
Assessment:
ungraded semester performance

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