Research Development Retreat


ISCI 320

May 2018 video compilation

Check out the retreat class of May 2018! Thanks to Estella Dong for the video.

Course Description

The purpose of this course is to learn to think clearly about scientific issues, to gain confidence in your own ideas, and to express and share scientific ideas in discussions and in writing. The organizing principle for the course is the writing of a research grant proposal, during which students will engage in focused and sustained scientific interactions within a team. The grant proposals can have an applied component, but they must address exploration of basic science and general scientific principles, and they must have an interdisciplinary component. Working groups of 3-4 students each come up with a list of interdisciplinary research topics. The groups then discuss their lists in order to identify a particular topic that is potentially suitable for in-depth investigation. Each group then prepares a research grant proposal around the chosen topic. Instructors will assist the students by helping them to recognize good research questions and by providing guidance during the writing of the grant proposal. Proposals are reviewed and presented at various stages, including a final presentation.

ISCI 320: Research Development Retreat is about getting you, the student, to participate in and advance your own education. By this level in your studies you've learnt a lot of facts, theories, and methods. But have you ever thought about how to apply your knowledge? This course will give you the opportunity to synthesize the material you've learned in your other courses into an original research project. In doing so you will learn vital research skills.



The retreat will run for eight days in early May (soon after exams complete, see the Schedule for exact dates) with two pre-trip meetings in January-April. Students will work on projects roughly 10 hours per day for a total of at least 70 hours.

Specific Outcomes

Working in a group of three or four, at the end of the retreat you will have:

  • Discovered an unsolved problem in basic science;
  • Developed, from your prior knowledge, several plausible explanations for the phenomenon in question;
  • Realized specific predictions that must follow if your explanations are correct;
  • Designed experiments to test your predictions and, in turn, your explanations;
  • Composed an original grant proposal that describes the phenomenon and your research methods;
  • Critically reviewed at least one other grant proposal; and
  • Presented and defended your research proposal before your peers.

General Objectives

By completing the above learning outcomes, on completion of the course you will be able to:

  • Express your innate curiosity about nature;
  • Formulate and interpret scientific theories;
  • Design simple and clear experiments that will support or refute theories;
  • Critically reflect on your own ideas; and
  • Express your ideas clearly and simply in writing and verbally.

As described below, your evaluation will measure your success in meeting the above objectives.


The goal of the workshop is to write a research proposal in groups of 3-4 students that stay together for the whole course. The proposal will be presented, discussed and evaluated at three stages of the process, with each stage representing a percentage of the whole grade. Proposals will be judged based on content and presentation. In addition, the teaching faculty will evaluate students based on the overall participation and performance, and each student will evaluate the efforts of each of the other students in their group during the course. As indicated below, students will be graded as a group in some tasks, and for their individual (solo) work in others.

Mark Distribution

Grades will be based on three stages of the research proposal (evaluated as a group) and individual evaluations by the instructors and peers. The mark distribution is:

Component Weight
Initial Draft & Presentation 60 (Evaluated as a group.  Each stage will be graded. Only the highest of the three grades will be counted.)
Midterm Draft
Final Proposal & Presentation
Instructor Evaluation 25 (Solo.)
Peer Evaluation 15 (Solo.)
Total 100

Initial Draft & Presentation

The goal of the first draft is to find an unsolved problem in basic science and explain how it challenges our current understanding. It should clearly introduce the relevant scientific principles and demonstrate the current thinking on the topic (to your knowledge). A good topic will not be explainable with our available theories. The first draft should succinctly suggest one or more appropriate directions of investigation to inform the phenomenon. The text should flow logically, with general concepts resolving coherently into more specific details. The emphasis should be on our scientific knowledge and how the chosen topic could reveal further insights.

The initial presentation will cover the same material, in an engaging style, as the initial draft. A clear, enthusiastic presentation will inspire helpful feedback and ideas from the audience. The evaluation for this stage will be largely based on the draft but presentations that clarify confused points in the draft will be recognized.

(Page and time limits for all written reports and presentations will be indicated in advance of the deadlines.)

Midterm Draft

The midterm draft will be a revision and extension of the first draft that takes into account feedback from the first draft. It will also develop one or more original scientific theories that could explain the research question and it will outline experiments to test them. The emphasis at this stage should be on developing a well-reasoned line of investigation to inform the phenomenon. Ideas should flow logically and be well connected. You should draw upon general scientific principles to generate one or more plausible theories. The theories should lead to specific predictions under well-defined experimental conditions. The experiments must be practical in scope (as will be defined at the start of the course) and should be designed to yield unequivocal results that either support or refute the predictions. The possible experimental outcomes should be thoroughly investigated and the logical consequences to the theories explored.

Final Proposal & Presentation

The final proposal will be a revision and extension of the midterm draft that takes into account feedback from the midterm draft. The final proposal will include a summary that logically carries the reader from the specific hypotheses and experiments back to the general purpose of the investigation and demonstrates that the proposed research will convincingly answer the original research question. The proposal should now be a complete, logically coherent document that: leads the reader into the research question; draws on your science education to formulate relevant theories; generates specific predictions to test; designs convincing experiments; interprets the possible experimental outcomes and their significance to the theories; and informs the original research question.

The final presentation will cover the same material, in an engaging style, as the final proposal. The evaluation for this stage will be largely based on the written proposal but presentations that clarify confused points in the proposal will be recognized.

Instructor Evaluation

The course will be most fruitful if students are engaged and participating. You are expected to attend and be punctual for all meetings, and to be courteous and considerate of your peers. The goal is to foster an intense academic experience. Any behaviour that undermines it will be penalized.

You should take opportunities to lead some of the discussions within your group and when meeting with faculty. However, beware dominating your group as it suppresses free discourse and will sabotage the final product. Each student should have an opportunity to demonstrate their reasoning ability when meeting with faculty. Strive for a positive group dynamic where each individual is given time to speak and group members tactfully help each other look for flaws in their reasoning.

Peer Evaluation

You are the best judge of whether your peers were productive members of your group. As such, your evaluation of each other's performance is invaluable. You will submit a written and quantitative evaluation of each member in your group including yourself. You should consider criteria similar to the Instructor Evaluation. Recommendations for numeric assignment of performance will be provided.

Late Penalties

This retreat compresses a full-term course into (roughly) one week. As such, every hour of participation is important. To ensure that we get underway promptly on the first day and every morning thereafter, penalties of 1.5% per hour (prorated) will accrue for tardiness. Late penalties will be deducted from grade totals. See the schedule for start times. (If these penalties are not found to promote punctuality, other measures may be taken.)

Related Pages

Registration Details

2017W T2