The research project module is often a crucial part of a science degree, allowing students to deeply engage in scientific discovery and to allow them to personally experience scientific processes. When it is not possible for students to enter laboratories, as has been the case over the past year, alternatives are needed.
On the Biomedical Materials Science BMedSc course the alternatives this past year were for the students to research the literature in depth, create biomaterials concepts and also to do biomaterials testing at home. The students were given mentors as would happen for a laboratory-based project. For the biomaterials concepts, there was a requirement for them to explore different aspects of research information: that which could be obtained from the academic literature, historical aspects, patents and ideas generation. Small achievable submissions were made throughout the term to allow the students to gain feedback on their ideas and iterate them to the next version as would happen with developing a research project in the laboratory.
The biomaterials concept idea was a highly dynamic process and the students appreciated the shorter deadlines and lower contribution to the overall mark for each individual piece of work. They liked particularly that they knew what was expected over a shorter period of time rather than the longer planning needed for the biomaterials testing, as is more common in a research project with a final dissertation. The counter to this was that there appeared to be more marking, though this may have been that it was just more frequent and took a toll on staff time. The regular feedback from these submissions meant that there was development in many of the ideas over time.
For the biomaterials testing at home the students were provided with a box containing simple equipment and food-based ingredients to aid them in developing bioplastics (or biopolymers) in the home kitchen and to test them for materials properties. They also had mentors for this, along with weekly drop in sessions and they were given the opportunity to engage in a less formal manner via a module specific Instagram page. The Instagram page also helped the students to experience how their contributions fitted into the wider community as there were comments from staff, students, contributors form outside the university and also others not affiliated with the programme but with interest in bioplastics and biomaterials. Whilst the setting for the research was different the same concepts of developing the research and ensuring it was completed in a scientific, robust and rigorous manner were the same.
For the biomaterials testing at home the process of completing the work was much longer, requiring greater planning and stamina from the students. There was a mix of engagement: with some students making the testing their own and even developing some of their own tests; other were less engaged and completed a small number of experiments. The use of Instagram was an easy way to interact with the students and they used it in a professional way, showing their process and failures and successes in their home testing. It had more uptake than usual discussion pages on Canvas and that may have been due to the more informal setting and ease of access. By sending out the equipment and reagents needed for the experiments it was possible to generate and analyse data. This is a key development stage in understanding scientific process. A box like this could be used with distance learners or as part of outreach or widening participation activities.