Tuesday, December 1, 2015

It’s All About the Process: Learning by Doing by Keaton Stoner

            During the last three weeks of our semester abroad with OTS, we conducted our final research projects at Las Cruces Biological Station in San Vito. My group addressed whether local plants could serve as effective and practical mosquito larvicides in order to prevent dengue, a mosquito-borne disease that causes high morbidity in Costa Rica. As a whole, the research experience was very up-and-down; in the end, it really came full circle and left me with a greater sense of satisfaction than I had expected.
            Personally, I had never conducted a research investigation from start to finish prior to this project. As the process began, we were excited to be able to design and execute our own experiment, yet also a bit anxious about the tediousness of the process. Simply following the instructions of a pre-designed experiment is one thing, but doing all of the necessary research to fine tune specific methods is an entirely different beast. After many hours of researching exactly how our laboratory experiment would run in terms of concentrations, trial durations, and preparation procedures, we felt as though we were in the best possible position to gain consistent results. As we began our trials, however, we were disheartened at the seeming randomness of our initial results. We repeatedly tweaked our experiment in hopes of decreasing the variation in our data, but we eventually needed to move on with our experiment and accept whatever results we gathered.
            As a very concrete thinker (I like answers and numbers, not just more questions), this initially disheartened me. We had spent all of this time becoming experts on the topic, and now our excessive preparation seemed futile. After completing our trials and data analysis, I still lacked a sense of total fulfillment, despite being a bit more encouraged in the possible deductions we could make from our results. It wasn’t until our poster presentation on Thanksgiving morning that I really appreciated the research process that we had just struggled through. After laying out a “Sparknotes” version of our experiment on a poster, I realized that, while our experiment didn’t concretely “prove” anything, it raised a lot of interesting questions that had significant implications for people’s lives. Even more encouraging was the fact that people seemed genuinely interested in our project and where it would potentially lead in the future.

            Though you hear all the time that student research is about the process, not the outcome, it takes actually going through that process to understand this idea. Despite the tribulations that came with our experiment, I can confidently say that I am a better thinker for having done it.

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