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Providing a Capstone “Field Trip” Experience in your Online Science Course

Student showing niece lichen growing on a tree and observing it with an 8X hand held magnifierAn undergraduate capstone experience is usually designed to bring reflection and focus to the whole of the college experience. I teach a variety of online biology and microbiology courses at the undergraduate level and provide a “mini” capstone experience at the end of each course. This provides an opportunity for the student to integrate the skills, methodology, and knowledge gained throughout the semester and culminates in a project in the form of a paper to analyze and evaluate the experience. The paper is consistent with the goals of “Writing Across the Curriculum” which is an educational reform movement that seeks to improve students’ critical thinking skills through an increase in writing instruction throughout all departments and courses. In this case, I teach students how to write using a scientific style, and stress that writing and organizing information are important scientific activities. The APA style guide is used, and additional resources are provided to assist them.  For example, the Open Writing Laboratory (OWL) at Purdue has an excellent website for teaching APA format. APA citations can be easily done through the Son of Citation Machine, which takes information and correctly formats it.

Taking the LabPaq “outdoors” for Biology courses

In General Biology I class, most colleges teach molecular and cellular biology, microbiology and finish the semester with botany. General Biology II usually focuses on zoology. My students do a field trip for their capstone experience observing the representative plant life or microbes in an area and relate it to the ecosystem it was found in. The general assignment is as follows:

Student gathering water from a stream to be observed under the microscope.

The report (6 – 10 pages double spaced) should be about at least 5 individual organisms (microbe or plant) that could be found at a local, county, state, or national park and relate it to the ecosystem found in that park. Please include some pictures of these plants (e.g. moss, grasses, shrubs, trees, etc.) either taken by you or found on the Internet (please give appropriate credit to the photographer). If you are deployed in the military or have some other limitation that prevents you from visiting a park you can use the Internet and do a virtual field trip providing the same information.

Please describe the following for plants: (1) the common name, (2) the scientific name, (3) habitat and range, (4) leaves, (5) twigs, (6) flowers/reproduction, (7) fruit, (8) bark, (9) how it uniquely adapts to its environment. Please include an image or picture with your report. Also include approximately 1 page about the ecology of the park you have chosen.

Student using a 200x Pocket Microscope to observe microscopic pond life

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive for the field trip. Students often combine it with a family picnic or other outdoor adventure. Some students collect pond water or water found in a salt marsh and use either the 200x Pocket Microscope provided in the BK-1 LabPaq or the 600 power monocular optical microscope that is purchased with the BK-2A, BK-2B or MBK LabPaqs. They are able to see the microscopic pond life such as organisms from the genus Euplotes, Paramecium, Euglena, and the rotifer Collotheca all swimming back and forth. Students with smart phones have taken pictures or made videos and included them in their capstone report. Students have found a website called Pond Life Identification Kit particularly helpful.

Many biology LabPaqs include an extensive dissecting kit, great for pulling things apart in the field along with an 8X hand held magnifier. The magnifier is great for viewing the mosses, lichens or flowers close up.

Shadowing a Laboratorian for the Capstone Report

I also teach microbiology online and for the capstone report students shadow a microbiologist for a day. I have them sit with a microbiologist in a hospital, private clinical, environmental, public health or research laboratory and observe their routine and how they work up specimens. It is amazing how what the students see in the hospital or clinical laboratories parallel what they observed in the MBK LabPaq.

I believe that the capstone experience provides a way of tying it altogether for the student. They take what they have learned during the semester and demonstrate the mastery of that material in the capstone report. They apply knowledge gained in the classroom to the analysis of biology or microbiology in the “real world.” The Capstone “Field Trip” Experience can be applied to nearly any online science course. Students have overwhelmingly endorsed this experience as highly worthwhile to their learning and understanding and also a lot of fun!

Written by Dr. Jim Brown, Associate Professor of Science and former Dean of Science, Engineering, Health Sciences and Human Performance at Ocean County College, Toms River, New Jersey. Dr. Brown was a pioneer in developing science courses to be taught totally online.  


If you would like to share your comments with Dr. Brown about his article, please e-mail him at YourSciencePartner@LabPaq.com.

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