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Interdisciplinary research internships: The X-Phi Lab Group Groningen.

Lieuwe Zijlstra on new ways of teaching
02 June 2023
New Ways of Teaching
New Ways of Teaching

In this monthly blog about new ways of teaching, educators talk about their innovative, creative and impactful teaching initiatives. From unusual teaching methods to new technologies - everything is covered. How did these ideas come about and what impact does it have on students?

This month, Lieuwe Zijlstra, Assistant Professor at University College Groningen about his Interdisciplinary research internships.

In 2019, I designed a version of evidence-based interdisciplinary research internships aimed at improving students’ academic performance and combining research and teaching, which I named “Young Scientists at UCG”. Those internships have been running ever since and results are promising. Students have produced research output, have written manuscripts, presented at conferences, developed workshops, and initiated collaborations with researchers and policy-makers within the Netherlands and abroad. 

Lieuwe Zijlstra
Lieuwe Zijlstra

Students as professionals: The importance of a working social dynamic

In the past years, there have been a variety of internships investigating a whole range of topics, including personal identity, meaning in life, moral decision-making, moral enhancement, social dynamics of norm-conformity, happiness, and wellbeing.  The internships are based on the idea that the identity of students is created in a social context. By treating students as professionals, a social dynamic can emerge that gives students the chance to believe in themselves, realize their full potential, and take ownership for their projects. As part of this social dynamic, students feel they can give feedback to their supervisor and express what they expect from them. This creates an equal-level playing field, which promotes independence, responsibility, and increased investment into projects.  If you treat a student as a professional, which they are, they will gladly behave like one. If students feel that they are not taken seriously, it might decrease the amount of responsibility they feel and the amount of investment they will put into their own project.

Research, interdisciplinarity, and other important components

The following components are integral to the internships: Research, Interdisciplinarity, Sustainable embeddedness, Independence and responsibility, Connections and collaborations, Multiplicity of feedback, and Stakes. With regard to the research components, students are taken through the whole research cycle: Literature review, hypothesis-development, experimental design, data collection and analysis, communication, and academic writing.  Given the interdisciplinary approach, students also engage in conceptual analysis, logic, reflection, and a consideration of research ethics.

The importance of being socially embedded: The X-Phi lab

Another component that is part of the internships is something I term “Sustainable embeddedness”. I created a lab group, namely the Experimental Philosophy Lab Group,Which all internship students join. They are joined by students from  the Experimental Philosophy Project at the UCG, which I also teach.Furthermore, there are scholars from other faculties who have joined the lab group. The lab group is led by the students and this responsibility is  handed over when new internship students join.

The fact that outside scholars attend our lab group meetings creates extra incentives for students to perform well. Indeed, research has also shown that formal and informal interactions with scholars increases performance and student satisfaction (Wong & Chapman, 2022). Another important reason to embed students is that it contributes to their study performance and efficacy (e.g. Park et al., 2016). The fact that students organize these things themselves makes this a sustainable practice.

Zijlstra with his students
Zijlstra with his students

Independence and responsibility

Two other components that are part of the internships are what I name “Independence” and “Responsibility”. At the start of the internship, students are instructed to take responsibility for their own learning process, and to act like independent researchers. In turn, they are treated as professionals. Research has shown that taking this approach can lead to more meaningful learning and improved academic performance (Ayish & Deveci, 2019). 

Students also connect to academic researchers from different disciplines and are encouraged to make novel meaningful connections and collaborations with other students, scholars, and external parties, which has been shown to be beneficial for their professional development (Hoyle & Deschaine, 2016). The connections component has a further dimension: Students are actively encouraged to seek connections between their internship work and coursework they are engaged in at other courses.

The students give and receive feedback from each other, from their internship advisor, from external scholars, at conferences, and during online meetings with scholars (Hattie & Timperly, 2007).  As a result, there is multiplicity of feedback, which is very valuable because it provides diversity of insights and opinions, helps identifying blind spots, leads to a more comprehensive understanding of complex problems, mitigates biases, and promotes growth and personal development. Consequently, it increases the overall quality of the research. 

We all need encouragement

Finally, an important component of the research internships is that there are stakes involved. Students are encouraged to produce output that makes a difference. The focus lies on academic output that can be published and presented at academic conferences. Moreover, the internships are tailored to a societally relevant issue. In the past years, students in the internships have written manuscripts and presented their research at many academic workshops and conferences within Groningen, at the University of Utrecht, Tilburg University, the University of Granada, and even at Yale and Harvard/MIT.

Creating a space for flourishing as a student

In conclusion, the identity of students is created in a social context. Treating students as promising professionals encourages them to become one. Interestingly, students are very talented and if you give them opportunities and they feel trust, they will be aware of a space that comes into existence. A space in which they can develop themselves. In most cases, they will happily take that space. The above-mentioned components contribute in a more practical manner. Moreover, both the spirit of the internships and the components I discussed can be applied in other types of courses. 

Science is a social practice: A big thanks to contributors and collaborators

I am grateful to Jacob Dijkstra, Gorazd Andrejc, Joshua Knobe, Michael Prinzing, Michael Stagnaro, Adam Bear, Brenda Bartelink, Hanna van Loo, and many others who have contributed to the lab group and the internship students. Moreover, I am proud of the good work that students have done, which includes Sanne van Emmerik, Julius Westerhoff, Mika van Wijk, Sybe van den Top, Magdalena Ringle, Naoise Gilmore, Otto Backé, Solke Eugelink, Johannes Hütten, Femke de Rijk, Katharina Doebelt, Job Doornhoff, Twan Tromp, Alysha Wings and Kerstin Baureis.

Further Reading

Last modified:06 June 2023 11.07 a.m.
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