Mentoring Program Increases Effectiveness in Data Analysis and Interpretation for Undergraduate Biology Students

November 13, 2020

One of the missions of the UC Irvine Charlie Dunlop School of Biological Sciences is to prepare the next generation of life science professionals. As part of that mission, faculty and staff from the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology have come together to develop a new mentoring program to help undergraduate students develop core competencies critical for earning a degree in the biological sciences. The Dunlop School team consists of Associate Professor Cascade Sorte, Associate Professors of Teaching Nancy Agular-Roca and Jessica Pratt and Assistant Project Scientist Amy Henry. Their exciting work has been recently published in Life Science Education.

Undergraduates studying biology are required to take courses designed to develop specific core competencies like critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and written communication. A common challenge when implementing these competencies in a biology course is the instructor-to-student ratio. Instructors must find the right balance between a sufficiently challenging curriculum and a realistic timeframe for student feedback and constructive criticism. To address this common issue, Professors Agular-Roca, Pratt and Sorte, along with Dr. Henry, developed and implemented a writing mentorship program to improve the adoption of specific core competencies in Dunlop School undergraduate students.

The team built the resulting Science Writing Integrated Mentoring (SWIM) program on a hierarchical mentoring model and enlisted graduate mentor assistants, who guided groups of four to five undergraduate students. They evaluated the SWIM program’s success through a final research paper and by comparing student feedback with a course that did not implement the program. Results indicate that hierarchical mentoring’s primary benefits are improvements in perceived and demonstrated ability in data analysis and interpretation. The team is eager to continue the program, with additional modifications to assist students whose primary language is not English.