The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
S390 is the undergraduate science capstone project module. The S390 umbrella contains 6 strands (SXL, SXE, SXM, SXG, SXN and SXP). This project concerns only SXL390 Researching Biology and Health Sciences, and SXE390 Environmental Science. Up until 21B all strands except SXE required students to produce a 5000-word literature review as their project (EMA). SXE390 students completed a field-based practical project with their EMA requiring a data analysis component. In 2020, the Royal Society of Biology awarded interim accreditation to our BSc Biology (R58) and BSc Natural Sciences Biology pathway (Q64 Biology). A condition of accreditation was that students should demonstrate critical data analysis in their capstone project. Therefore, a data analysis route (Route B) based on the SXE390 model including field-based, dataset and lab-based options has been introduced for 21B on SXL390. Route B is for biology students only, with those following other qualification pathways remaining on the original SXL390 literature route (Route H).
Across the sector, in 2020 undergraduate students were forced to abandon practical project plans outside their own property due to the constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. SXE390 students planning field-based projects moved to the analysis of secondary datasets relating to their project topics. Some students analysed secondary datasets only while others combined data they collected with secondary data. Following the success of these dataset projects, and the ongoing pandemic situation, the module team decided to introduce a secondary dataset option to SXE390 for 21B. Therefore, both SXL390 and SXE390 now offer practical and dataset project options.
Pedagogically, it can be difficult to provide an online experience in independent project work that meets practical/data analytical skills required by current employers while meeting the benchmark levels for accreditation. This is especially true for subjects, courses, and disciplines traditionally taught face to face, that may also be inaccessible for some students with disabilities. Changes made to SXE390 and SXL390 attempt to demonstrate that flexibility is the key to meeting these goals.
Thus, by broadening project options we hope to increase accessibility to the module, provide greater opportunity for the development of employability skills, and offer flexibility for students to choose a project topic that relates to their interests, previous module experience and current employment or future career aspirations.
In this project, we wish to evaluate the impact of these changes on student retention, achievement and experience, and the tutoring role. Initial results will inform the development of a new version of S390 (due to present in 2023) and conclusions and recommendations will have wider relevance for the sector as more universities branch out into online delivery. In addition, results could inform the refining of HEI benchmarks for fieldwork and provide data on the development of employability and transferable skills.