Participation in research program

A Novel Course in Undergraduate Education of Life Science


  • Xuanwei Zhou,

    1. From the Plant Biotechnology Research Center, School of Agriculture and Biology, Fudan-SJTU-Nottingham Plant Biotechnology R&D Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai 200030, People's Republic of China
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  • Juan Lin,

    1. State Key Laboratory of Genetic Engineering, School of Life Sciences, Fudan-SJTU-Nottingham Plant Biotechnology R&D Center, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, People's Republic of China
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  • Yizhou Yin,

    1. State Key Laboratory of Genetic Engineering, School of Life Sciences, Fudan-SJTU-Nottingham Plant Biotechnology R&D Center, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, People's Republic of China
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  • Xiaofen Sun,

    1. State Key Laboratory of Genetic Engineering, School of Life Sciences, Fudan-SJTU-Nottingham Plant Biotechnology R&D Center, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, People's Republic of China
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  • Kexuan Tang

    Corresponding author
    1. From the Plant Biotechnology Research Center, School of Agriculture and Biology, Fudan-SJTU-Nottingham Plant Biotechnology R&D Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai 200030, People's Republic of China
    • From the Plant Biotechnology Research Center, School of Agriculture and Biology, Fudan-SJTU-Nottingham Plant Biotechnology R&D Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai 200030, People's Republic of China
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    • Tel: +86-21-62932002; Fax: +86-21-62824073


A novel course, “Participation in Research Program (PRP)” in life sciences is open for 1st to 3rd year undergraduates. PRP introduces the principles of a variety of biological methods and techniques and also offers an opportunity to explore some specific knowledge in more detail prior to thesis research. In addition, the PRP introduces some methodologies that have been proven to be successful at each institution to participants. Through disciplines crossing, students were trained theoretically and practically about modern techniques, facilitating the efficient commutation of general laboratory skills and modern laboratory skills, and the possession of higher research ability. Therefore, during some basic training (e.g., usage and maintenance of equipments, designing and completing experiments, analyzing data and reporting results, etc.), a series of capabilities are strengthened, such as basic experimental skills, searching appropriate methods, explaining unknown biological phenomena, and the capacity of solving problems. To determine the efficiency of these strategies, we carefully examined students' performance and demonstrated the progress in students' basic abilities of scientific research in their training.

Life science is based on experimental investigations, in which theoretical models describe the natural results generally from a practical observation of phenomena. Thus, it is important that students, the future scientists, understand the experimental basis of the “facts” in textbooks and gain experience in the practice of scientific investigation. Traditionally, laboratory practices for 1st to 3rd year undergraduates have been structured to illustrate and confirm lectured materials [1]. Occasionally, individual undergraduates are allowed to enter the laboratory and do practical work relevant to their graduation thesis research. In the fourth year, all students starting graduation thesis research enter the laboratory according to the arranged schedule [2]. However, this alone does not meet all the needs of the students; consequently, there has been a trend to provide students with more opportunities to participate in more advanced scientific processes. The objectives of “Undergraduate Student Research Training Program” have been comprehensively summarized by Zhuang [3]. In addition, to illustrate lectured materials, learning objectives were categorized as developing “basic laboratory skills” and “advanced laboratory skills” [4], which include six aspects of the contents: searching and catching up information, designing research projects, using instruments, analyzing results, writing the summary reports, and cultivating cooperation spirits [5]. Our point of view is that previous opinions must be implemented into the curriculum, which means clarity of skill items for every course. For example, the basic laboratory skills involve how to follow protocols and work safely and efficiently, including manipulative skills, operating equipments, recording data, and processing and reporting skills. Advanced experimental skills include planning experiments, preparing protocols, critically analyzing data and literatures, forming hypothesis, communicating information (oral and written), and team working [5]. We would also add problem solving to the list of high-level skills.

To cultivate the talent of the students in scientific research, some top universities in China have established the “Undergraduate Student Research Training Program” in recent years, though the names of these programs are different in each university. For example, the program is assigned as “Participation in Research Program (PRP)” in Shanghai Jiao Tong University [6], “the Chun-Tsung Scholar Program and the Wang Dao Scholar Program” at Fudan University [7]. However, the basic purposes are the same: to open platforms and provide more chances of training in research skills, using integrated teaching resources and research strength, and to transform the management of the model from the teacher-based management to the student-based self-development. The programs offer students a chance of scientific research training, making them participate in the process of scientific research and innovation, learn basic theories, develop experimental skills, and hold on research methodologies through which their interests of scientific research will be promoted, although the purpose does not expect them to have the great innovation [8].

During the process of the practical-skill training, the skill contents (called units) are different according to different program degrees [9, 10]. According to the life science program degree requirement, the experiments of biochemistry and molecular biology demand students to possess the skills of basic laboratory techniques and advanced laboratory techniques. In biochemistry, the basic laboratory techniques include electrophoresis, chromatography, centrifugation, and photometric-analysis techniques. The advanced laboratory techniques include two-dimensional gel electrophoresis (2-DE), polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) technique [11]. When carrying out the 2-DE experiments, some advanced knowledge is introduced, for example, the research significance of proteomics and the research method of proteomics using the mass spectrum (MS) technique. When doing ELISA experiment, students were presented with related immunological knowledge and ELISA application in the project research of biochemistry and molecular biology. Then affects of experimental items were completely deepening [11]. In this paper, we report a novel adaptation of Li's proposal, whereby a unit is offered, which is entirely dedicated to developing practical, cognitive, and report writing skills in 2nd- and 3rd- year biology students. The course also provides students with a theoretical and practical introduction to more advanced techniques, which has facilitated an efficient transition for students from basic learning to higher levels of learning.


The minimum qualification for admission is an upper average-level degree in an experiment-based subject from each department. All applications are reviewed by the Academic Committee. Most of the students entering the program had learnt the core courses of life sciences, such as chemistry, basic experiment of modern biology, general biology, biochemistry, genetics, etc. (Ref.2, Tables I–III on pages 142–144), at the same time passed the examination, possessed basic knowledge, and acquired general laboratory skills, and then entered laboratories to further enhance their experimental skills. In different degree programs, the course design is diversified [12, 13]. In general, the program needs to be completed within one year; the students must complete the relevant workload described in the requisition. Usually, 2–3 credit hours would be given to them. In our laboratory, the courses are designed and completed as follows. The unit was offered in three stages: the first during the 1st to 3rd week, the second during the 4th to 20th week (including a summer vacation), and the third during the 21st to 30th week, which was based broadly on the professor and scholar's proposals. During the process of the PRP, we divided the practice and training skills into three modules: skill learning, skill experiencing, and skill developing (Table I) [14]. The skill training is throughout the whole procedures including the project planning, implementing, analyzing, and evaluating processes. These were divided into three steps, and each step may contain one or two units of the three modules.

Table I. Participation in research program: lecture and practical schedule
TimesModulesLectureSkill item
Weeks 1–3Skill learning1. Laboratory safety1. Usage of balance
2. Writing and reporting results (maintaining a laboratory notebook, laboratory reports oral presentations)2. Centrifugation
3. How to use apparatus and equipment3. Pipetting liquids
4. Biological methods:4. Techniques of plant tissue and cell culture
 (a) Preparation of solutions5. Cleanse and sterilization of reagent and experimental ware, etc.
 (b) Principle of centrifuge6. Experimental design, collection and statistical analysis of data, controls
 (c) Basic theory of cell culture7. Computer (data analysis, graphing, spreadsheet, literature search, databases)
 (d) Asepsis technique, bacteria culture and preservation, etc. 
Weeks 4–20Skill experience1. Basic theory of electrophoretic technique1. Extraction, isolation, and determination techniques of nucleic acid and protein
2. Techniques of protein characterization, isolation, and purification2. Using commercial kits
3. Selecting and restricting the condition of determination of enzyme activity3. Techniques of protein extraction and characterization (sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE), isoelectric point determination (IEF-PAGE))
4. Basic theory and techniques of PCR (polymerase chain reaction)4. Enzyme activity determination, enzyme assaying, characterization (optimal pH, temperature, heat sensitivity), and enzyme kinetics measurement
5. Characterization and separation of plant secondary metabolite, etc5. Techniques of gene cloning
 6. Techniques of sample separation, purification, and characterization (ion exchange chromatography, affinity chromatography, HPLC)
Weeks 21–30Skill development1. Selecting site of restricted enzyme, characteristics of different tool enzymes1. Techniques of vector construction
2. Introductions of various transformation methods2. Transgenic technology
3. Theories of library construction3. Techniques of exogenous gene expression
 4. Molecular hybridization techniques
 5. Library construction techniques

According to the arrangement of the Teaching Affairs Office, the first step is to apply for a research program including: 1) brief introduction; 2) basic research contents, emphases, difficulties, frontiers of the research field, and theoretical and practical significance; 3) demonstrating conditions of the project implementation and accomplishment; 4) demonstrating the project plan; 5) analyzing the prospects of the project; 6) the plan of scheduling and implementing the project; 7) general illustration; 8) material demand and supply; 9) introduction of the technology process; 10) organization, labor quota, and personnel dividing arrangement of the work; 11) comprehensive analysis of technological and economic benefits of projects. The item's contents and scientific significance is an important factor for a successful program. In addition, another key factor is the professors who are active in research, who are willing to train undergraduate research scholars, and who can assign or collaborate with them on suitable research topics.

The second step is to carry out the experimental practice, which, in this stage, includes two tasks namely “skill learning” and “skill experience,” both offered in the form of an extended practical experiment. The undergraduate students first learn relevant skills through observation and imitation of their tutors' actions and then they will independently learn how to do it. Thus, the first module combines “skill learning” with the subsequent “skill experiencing” once a technique is introduced. In other words, “old” skills are practiced concurrently with the introduction of “new” skills. Students were able to gain experience in the basic principle and application of specific technologies, analytical methods, and report writing.

Finally, undergraduate students are required to compare data (or results) with his/her workmates and to present an analytical report in the conventional IMRD (introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion) format. High quality research reports will be recommended by the tutor professor to scientific journals for publication. Training and feedback in investigative methods is provided during the first module in the form of short assessable tasks, and in the second module basic laboratory-techniques training is directly instructed by the graduate student. Since only a handout containing guidelines for the presentation of scientific reports are provided on the Internet, students are under minimal constraint and are entirely responsible for conducting, recording, and analyzing the experiment.


The course organization and performance of PRP programs are as follows: The university sets up the special organization responsible for the tasks and forms the leading group of two administrative systems in the university and college, respectively. The leading group plans the overall projects, making the standard specification of the project review, deciding on admission, and evaluating the implementation. The Teaching Affairs Office of the university constitutes the policy, byelaws, management objectives, and work process for the implementation. These aim to ensure the success of the PRP program. The objects of the PRP program implementation are the 1st to 3rd year undergraduates and young teachers in the university. At the university, training and program quality of students takes priority; two-way selection in employment and optimized combination between staff and PRP program are adopted; the students may choose the PRP program according to their requirements. The sources of the project are as follows: 1) teachers doing research programs; 2) industries and market demand based on investigations; 3) the special research projects by cooperation. The PRP programs are decreed once a year, and students entering PRP are given priority to research training.

In general, the present experimental skills and the expected academic horizon of the students entering the PRP program must be clearly described in their requisition. Most of the knowledge-relative techniques have been learnt before entering the laboratory, and the shortage may be complemented in various ways, such as discussing, operating alone or cooperatively in the research. Sometimes, examining whether the students have been skilful enough is necessary. After entering the program, learning goes throughout the whole training process, in which undergraduates gradually obtain the techniques. According to the role of the students in learning skills, the process may be divided into three phases: simulation-based learning, experiencing, and reflection on doing. After the students enter the program, the training process is monitored on time by the study group. Actually, after the students take part in the research program, their detailed practice needs to be coached by the graduate students or young teachers. The instruction group consists of a teacher and graduate students. They are responsible for the students' training. They also decide the need to be made to determine the best course of action for the training: what type of training is necessary, who is responsible for the training, and should it be mandatory for all courses? Equally important are the issues of whether a program should be designed and administered centrally through the instruction group. “Project-based experiments” afforded participants an opportunity to explore some specific projects in more detail. It also allowed for a discussion of the pros and cons of several components of these programs. In addition, participants were introduced to some methodologies that have proven to be successful at each institution. The students also discuss the progress and problems in their work with others in the seminar once a week. According to the problems, the group leader points out the disadvantages and opinions for improvement and illustrates his/her own ideas on how to perform efficient experiment with the purpose of developing relevant skills in Course Design. Certainly, in various phases, the subjects are different and so are the desires for students in different grades. Finally, students must complete the paper writing process according to the “Instructions for authors” of a journal that has been published. The manuscript is revised by the students, tutors, and teachers, respectively, and then submitted to the management department or recommended for publication. Through these processes, the skills of the students' report writing will be improved greatly.

The key of a successful program depends on the professors who are active in research. The criteria for student selection are the scientific significance of their proposals, their abilities to complete the project in time, and the commitment and quality of their research advisors. Moreover, these programs encourage interdisciplinary research.


Because of the diversity of the course, there is no entirely suitable single textbook. Consequently, the different undergraduate degree programs develop the in-house laboratory manual, select a publication as a laboratory manual [15], or write a book of operational instruction [16]. In general, “Instructions to authors” of journals is recommended as a guide for writing technique. In the biological degree programs in some universities, “A Guide to Writing about Science and Technology Papers” as a minicourse is required for the undergraduate degree. In addition, published scientific papers are added to the recommended reading lists to assist research endeavors, especially those published in specialized high-quality journals, such as Plant Cell, Cell, etc., and students are encouraged to use databases and other electronic resources of the university library.


The course is evaluated in five parts. The creativity of the theory and methods contributes 40% of the total score. The other factors comprising the evaluation include the advantage of task, theoretical and realistic significance (20%), the difficulties and labor intensity (20%), investigation harvest relating to the program (10%), reliability of experimental datum, and language precision in writing (10%). The final achievement is indicated as the point average evaluated by 5–7 scholars and professors.

The final scores of the “PRP” programs are ranked as “Fail,” “Pass,” and “Excellent” while the number of programs that get the “Excellent” level should not exceed 10% of the total. The individual scores of the students are divided into five ranks, which are “Excellent” (90–100 points), “Good” (80–89 points), “Middle Level” (70–79 points), “Pass” (60–69 points), and “Fail” (below 60 points), and the students who get the “Excellent” rank should be strictly controlled to be under 15–20% of the total, and everyone will receive one grade. Each student (or group) will write a research thesis and make an oral presentation of his/her work at the end of the term. It is suggested that the students begin their research projects at the end of their second academic year so as to allow them to use two full summers as well as their third year of studies to complete their projects.

In general, the students must write a paper or laboratory reports, through which, we may evaluate their work. A paper (or reported) returned with a grade and no comment is useless as a learning tool, as students are left with no indication of how to improve. The tutors should not attempt to rewrite laboratory reports or assignments for their students, whereas feedback on where the student erred is essential for improving the future performance. Sometimes, the management committee may be required for investigating the skill level of the students by an operation for 10–20 min. The indicator system of evaluation is relative to the learning level of the student when entering the PRP program, but not the development level of subjects. For instance, how to evaluate the “creativity of the theory and methods?” If a student does not learn molecular biology, but uses the techniques relative to it (e.g., PCR technique), it can be concluded that the student is creative. The advantage of task, and theoretical and realistic significance was evaluated with the advantage using techniques (modern techniques or general techniques), and if it can solve the practical problems in agricultural and industrial production. The evaluation of the difficulties and labor intensity is as same as the “creativity of the theory and methods,” mentioned earlier. However over 90% programs of total were completed, the reliability of experimental datum and language must be verified under the management of relating to a teacher (tutor).


Much progress has been made in life sciences in the recent years; consequently, the need of an advanced biology course for training experimental skills is reasonable and has long been recognized in the Chinese universities. The objective of life science education is to equip undergraduates with a wide range of experimental skills, including some highly sophisticated technologies [17]. To accomplish the purpose, many courses and relevant techniques are assigned in different semesters, and some specialty operation techniques are even provided as a course to students for practical learning [18, 19]. Students, particularly those at the lower grades, are required to develop cognitive and analytical capacities in the four years of study including the delivery of a lot of factual information. The subjects of any individual life sciences in theoretical curricula cannot independently reach the objectives; a experimental curricula, laboratory experience, and special skills are needed [20]. Besides, standardized process of research-skill training is also needed. Instruction books for the experiments or experimental protocols are the means that deliver techniques and practice. Actually, the instruction books have been designed to support specific theoretical lecture. Laboratory content in specific disciplines is usually teacher-dependent and generally highly focused [21]. This might lead to difficulties in linking teaching with laboratory exercises that can assure students with some skill practice, although limited. Collectively, the introductory courses may generate deficiencies in the students' necessary skills, particularly in terms of experimental design, analysis, and report writing. Even students at rudimentary levels are also usually eager to experience the advanced techniques of higher levels. It is recognized that the effective learning is influenced by the teaching strategies.

In some life-science courses, students are often directed toward the “relevant” data when confronted with a mass of experimental information so that they fail to develop cognitive and analytical skills. In particular, this strategy fails to teach the student to do it, which is helpful to develop skills in abstracting appropriate information from a background of irrelevant materials [22]. In our course, we have adopted a strategy that has been recognized to enhance cognitive and manipulative skills. Everyone is assigned to a postgraduate as a tutor for skill learning, and a related theory of the skill is introduced in seminar once a week. Sometimes, the students intercommunicate among the different laboratories. We have recognized, as have others, that no single discipline-based unit has the capacity to adequately present both its own theory and practice, and also to encapsulate the more holistic needs of life-science practice. Therefore, the students are encouraged to cooperate with the students in other laboratories. To this end, we have devoted an entire unit to the development of laboratory skills and scientific practice. This unit has been run annually since 2002 when the center was set up. From then on, there are about 15 undergraduates entering the laboratory every year. After studying the course, about 50% of the students were admitted for the postgraduate study in Chinese universities, while the others went abroad for doctorial degree. Meanwhile, there were about 3–5 papers published by the students every year, and some developed techniques or methods have been applied for patent protection. After innovative changes of experimental skills teaching during the last few years in our university, more and more students are interested in the course.

The educational effect of the unit (or the skill contents) has not been rigorously evaluated, although unit evaluations by students have been conducted and staffs have informally assessed the unit. The students' responses have been very supportive, as those got by staff interacting with past students at higher levels. For example, students undertaking studies in plant molecular biology and biotechnology were observed to proceed more rapidly in practical sessions, presumably due to the established foundation in laboratory methods. Students came to genetics classes with skills in gene cloning, expression, molecular detection, etc.; and in biochemistry, students showed their experience in filtration techniques of small-molecular-weight substance, spectrophotometer method, etc. These classes were able to begin at a more advanced level, such as metabolic engineering that allowed the students to concentrate on higher-level skills from the outset. The unit has also facilitated the standardizations of basic scientific and reporting methods across disciplines, reducing potential for confusion among students who otherwise may have had to negotiate their methods through conflicting instructions. The unit is amenable to alteration and is relatively independent of the discipline.

In the process of training students in our laboratory, the course focuses on plant molecular biology and biotechnology. Currently, we have tried the inclusion of other experimental and operational methods without constraints. This attempt is based on the undergraduates' interests and demands, which are the best teacher and also the foundations of self-paced learning and training. Therefore, we design the unit for students; the purposes only intend to assist them materializing their ideas. The strength of the unit is its holistic approach to the scientific process and a design that facilitates learning and exercising of skills. Students believe that entering PRP program training facilitates them to study other relevant theoretical courses, improves their abilities of operating by hands and using knowledge comprehensively, and fosters their innovative consciousness and scientific-thinking abilities. In the near future, further improvements of the course can be made; there will be more students' participation, including the average students and the weak students, according to the format for assessment. The results of the course may be presented as a final seminar, poster on experimental outcomes, or a written report, rather than a single paper. The student's coauthorship on a paper, while highly encouraged, is not a substitute for a comprehensive report written by the students' themselves. If the paper is accepted for publication by the core journal, the student will be greatly encouraged.


The authors thank Professor Chaoqun Wu (Fudan University) for his help in revising the manuscript. This research is supported by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China Ministry of Education, and Shanghai Science and Technology Committee.