(294a) Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking in a Course-Based Senior Research Laboratory in Chemical Engineering

Hwang, L. Y., Stanford University
Sattely, E., Stanford University
We have redesigned our senior two-quarter, required laboratory sequence with an overarching emphasis on critical thinking and decision-making based on data. We believe that the need for such quantitative critical thinking is universal for all of our chemical engineering students, and although it is an important goal of many classes, it is rarely achieved. As such, we have redesigned our two-quarter sequence using a scaffolded approach. In the first quarter, students are given an experimental system (an engineered E. coli strain that produces fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEEs) as a biofuel) and asked to optimize the timing of the induction step to produce the biofuel product. Students engage in iterative cycles of deciding what data to collect, analyzing their data, and making decisions on what experiments to conduct next. They are given an opportunity to cycle through this process several times throughout the quarter, while also presenting their analysis and conclusions with their colleagues. 
In parallel to these activities, teams of 3-4 students develop proposals for research projects to conduct in the second quarter, which are all aimed at improving renewable energy opportunities. These student teams refine their proposals over the duration of the first quarter and produce a final proposal with clear research goals and experimental plans to address those goals. During the implementation of their student-designed research projects in the second quarter, student teams continue to develop the skills that were the focus of the first quarter, while also learning how to develop and troubleshoot their own experimental progress. This culminates in a public poster session where students present their research projects and findings to a broad audience including faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduate students in the department. 

The effectiveness in achieving the student learning goals was measured using both informal student interviews as well as direct evidence of specific activities in student work examples that were adapted from the Wieman's Experimental physics "cognitive task analysis" (The Physics Teacher, 2015).