Bringing Science Alive at Pepperdine University

Bringing Science Alive at Pepperdine University

Through creativity and diligence, professors Stephen Davis and Thomas Vandergon of Pepperdine University have been showing science to their students, live and in action. Over time they have integrated their four photosynthesis systems obtained through the LEEF program into their classrooms. According to Dr. Stephen Davis, the photosynthesis systems have “revolutionized the way we teach here at Pepperdine” and have allowed professors to bring the theories learned in class to life. The professors’ commitment to experiential and project-based education is paying off in student confidence and putting classroom theories into real-life context.

Samantha Fiallo using the LI-6800.

Dr. Davis has been a professor at Pepperdine since 1974 and first became familiar with LI‑COR products in the 1980’s. Dr. Davis learned of the LEEF program from a former student and Pepperdine has since added two LI‑6400XT Portable Photosynthesis Systems and two LI‑6800 Portable Photosynthesis Systems. Dr. Davis understands that using a research‑grade instrument can be intimidating, especially for first year students. Junior student, Samantha Fiallo, says the first thought through her head when Dr. Davis brought out the LI-6400XT was: “I don’t want to touch that. I am going to break that.”

However, Dr. Davis has found a way to help students become more comfortable with the instruments. He does not want students “to use any instrument as a black box.” So, before they ever begin their lab, Dr. Davis assigns several groups to a different characteristic of the LI‑6400XT. Each group then researches their assigned characteristic and explains its role in the instrument to the others in class. This allows students to understand (and gives them the confidence to use) the LI‑6400XT.

Dr. Thomas Vandergon, who has been at Pepperdine University for more than 25 years, also understands that familiarity can help eliminate fear. In his approach, he divides his course into two separate labs. In their first lab, the students perform several “mini‑experiments” to become familiar with setting up and running the instrument. Then in their second lab, they develop a hypothesis of their own which may require the LI-6400XT to test.

Both Dr. Davis and Dr. Vandergon use a similar approach to introduce the LI-6400XTs operation. Each LI-6400XT is connected to a classroom local area network and groups are then split up for each instrument. The students can stay engaged with and have a chance to operate their assigned LI-6400XT. Dr. Vandergon has found that the available LI-6400XT app and the LI-6800 touchscreen give both an approachable learning curve. His tech savvy students quickly navigate the instruments in just two or three instructions.

Dr. Davis using the LI-6800.

While implementing LI‑COR instruments has gone well for the professors at Pepperdine, both Dr. Davis and Dr. Vandergon urge others to keep trying to find new ways to incorporate research-grade instruments into their classrooms. They want you to have faith that “it can be done. Research quality instruments for scientists in the field can be utilized even by first year students with little background.”Dr. Davis asks: “Do you have your kids memorize glycolysis? How about the Krebs cycle? How about the light reaction of photosynthesis? How about the dark reaction?” Of course, the answer is always yes, but Dr. Davis presses further: “Have they ever seen it? Have they ever put it together in a whole plant? Have they ever convinced themselves it really works that way?”

Dr. Vandergon is more succinct: “Everyone teaches photosynthesis in theory, but this makes it real.”

The effect on students is real, too. Samantha, who refers to herself as “not your typical science student,” is now a biology major. She has gained the confidence from her classroom experiences to use the LI‑6800 independently in her own field research on resurrection ferns. In the future, she hopes to marry both her communication and scientific abilities to bring the latest research to the general public or, if she has her way, to a classroom of her own. Dr. Davis says, “we teach the way we were taught.” If so, Samantha’s dream is one we are eager to see come true.

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