In 2017-2018, I drafted a proposal for a Professional Improvement Fellowship at UMass Amherst. This new program offered non-tenure-system faculty, after 10 years of service, a semester of professional release to accomplish a significant academic project — not unlike sabbatical for tenure system faculty. The creation of the Professional Improvement Fellowship program was the outcome of two years of difficult negotiations during the period that I served on our faculty and librarian union’s bargaining committee. Having been in the Biology Department at UMass Amherst for nearly 20 years at that point, I was very eager to participate in this program.

Every UMass Amherst honors student needs to complete a thesis in order to graduate with honors. In the Biology Department, especially, there are too few opportunities for individually-contracted honors theses, so the Commonwealth Honors College had developed a course type where a group of 12-15 students could work with a faculty member over two semesters to write a thesis. But at that time there were no honors thesis seminars offered in the life sciences, so my proposal was to have students develop a scientific instrument to collect data about some life science question.

In addition to years of teaching Writing in Biology to juniors, and running the now-shuttered Biology Computer Research Center, I had already co-taught a one semester Maker course that tried to have students do projects like this in a single semester, but it turned out that just wasn’t enough time: students could sorta learn the technology, but often didn’t have time to actually make anything, let alone collect enough data to do anything with it. So proposing it take place over two semesters made sense to me. Plus, the Commonwealth Honors College offers research grants to students that could provide them funding to buy the necessary components.

The first year I pitched the proposal for Open Science Instrumentation and Data Collection to the Biology Department it was rejected. But with a different chair the following year, it was accepted and I was awarded a fellowship with a full release from my professional duties during Spring 2020 to develop the materials for the course. I then worked for three months in the large metal shed UMass Amherst All-Campus Makerspace using the Software Carpentry curriculum model to develop modules to set up a Raspberry Pi, use the Pi to program an Arduino via the command line, program in python, and then use python to access the General-purpose input/output (GPIO).

As it turned out, however, something else happened that spring: in March 2020, UMass Amherst closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which bluntly took a lot of the fun out of my fellowship. My mother has lived with us since our eldest was two and she was now at high risk of complications from the virus, as was I, so now instead of walking to the Makerspace, I could safely use only the office in my partially finished basement (where I’m still writing now) to work remotely. Travel to learn more about projects elsewhere was no longer possible.

A centerpiece of my proposed course was that students would be working in the All-Campus Makerspace. But with the campus still functionally closed the following fall, I decided to adapt the course to be taught remotely via Zoom. I had a relatively small number of students the first year, but it actually all worked astonishingly well. Honors students are amazing: they have brilliant ideas, are willing to work incredibly hard, and have the self-discipline to work independently.

Typically for an honors thesis, a student is adopted into a research lab, learns the approaches being used in the lab, and becomes familiar with the specific literature that underlies the research enterprise. In my course, by contrast, students came up with some idea of their own and pursued it to the best of their ability. I have always believed that the traditional university education gives students far too few opportunities to pursue their own questions. Many students who take my Junior Year Writing in Biology class, that also requires students to write a proposal and conduct a small research project, say that it is the first time they’ve done anything at UMass Amherst that wasn’t simply following directions. Juniors actually say that.

Students do come up with amazing ideas. Here are just a handful of the ones from the first semester of Open Science Instrumentation and Data Collection:
“Utilizing Background Oriented Schlieren Imaging to Slow the Spread of Respiratory Disease”
“Automated recording of daily vibroacoustic and behavioral activity in Xylocopa virginica”
“A Novel High Frame Rate Photography System for Optical Motion Tracking of Insect Flight”

Over four years, I supervised a total of 44 honors theses like these where students built a scientific instrument to collect a body of data to gain insight into some life science question. Each project lies at the intersection of life sciences (designing the question and data collection strategy), engineering (selecting a hardware platform, sensors, and wiring them together), and informatics (programming the hardware platform to receive and record the data).

One of my original design criteria for the course was that there would be no artificial deadlines; the only deadlines were external ones: for the Honors Research Grant, for the Undergraduate Research Conference in the spring they were obligated to present as a condition of their Honors Research Grant funding, and for their final portfolio itself at the end of the Spring semester. All of the other milestones and deadlines they had to establish for themselves.

In the fall semester, I led the students through the course materials I had developed about using the Raspberry Pi and Arduino while at the same time they developed their research questions and wrote proposals for an Honors Research Grant, which was typically due in October. In addition, each week I had a one-on-one consultation with every student. That allowed me to offer individual advice and guidance, plus technical (and sometimes emotional) support, and it gave each student an excuse to be accountable for staying on track. Some students chose to use every minute of the consultation to work together with me, while others just wanted to check in and then work independently.

In the spring, students built, tested, and used their devices. Once their funds were available, they submitted orders, received their components, and built a prototype. We budgeted enough money for them to test the prototype to re-engineer and build a final device. At the same time, students needed to submit an abstract and prepare a presentation for the Undergraduate Research Conference, usually far in advance of completing their data collection. And, in the end, students wrote up a Creative Portfolio to submit as their thesis document.

Students learned a lot, both about the subject and themselves. They learned the science of their question by conducting a literature review. They developed technical skills using the educational materials and exploring the hardware platforms. They learned about agile project management to manage a large, long-term project. And they got to learn about the red tape of trying to order things via a large institution.

In Spring 2024, after a year of serious health issues that required I only teach remotely, I decided to pursue a phased retirement where I would teach half-time (remotely) for two years and then retire. I proposed to continue to teach this honors thesis seminar, which is still the only life science honors thesis seminar, is very popular with the students that take it, and (I believe) a nearly unique course in the world. But the Biology Department refused: apparently the “credit” for the course accrues to the wrong college. Instead, I will continue teaching my Writing in Biology course and act as the Presiding Officer of the Faculty Senate.

I’m sad to not be able to teach this honors thesis seminar any longer, but I’m gratified that I got to teach it at all: it was an amazing experience to work with so many dedicated students and to give them license to apply their creativity to so many fascinating problems. I learned a vast amount and was never bored while I tried to ride herd on all their weird and wonderful ideas. Students told me they learned more from this experience than any other at UMass Amherst. I will never forget their passion and excitement when, after immense struggles, they finally got something to work. It was the experience of a lifetime.