Class That Mixes Urban Ecology and Microbiology Wins Science Prize

Students hunted down bedbugs and scoured fish markets to find material for their DNA barcoding project.
A Belizean high school student preparing insect samples for collection. | Marissa Bellino

When science educators Stephen Harris and Marissa Bellino held weekend field research sessions around New York City for public high-school students, every student in the class would show up, and even kids who performed poorly in other classes did excellent work.

"It was all about giving them the right space to work and getting them excited," said Harris, who explains that the students did actual scientific research, collecting biological samples locally and then subjecting them to microbiological research techniques.

Those techniques allowed them to generate DNA barcode identifiers using short segments of DNA, and formulate their own research questions based on their DNA barcode analyses, said Harris, a Ph.D. candidate in evolutionary biology at City University of New York. "Sometimes the students who usually performed poorly academically did the best science in the group."

Because of its effectiveness at drawing in young students of all types and exposing them to the process of actual scientific research, the curriculum developed by Harris and Bellino, known as the Student Barcoding Project, has been selected to win the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

The prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as provide an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about the Student DNA Barcoding Project was published on 20 December.

"We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them," said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief emeritus of Science. "At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy."

Although Harris worked for two years as a high-school teacher before starting his Ph.D., he was unable to implement the kind of inquiry-based learning he had been exposed to as a student until he became a National Science Foundation Graduate STEM Fellow in K-12 Education, a program that put him back in the classroom.

University students from Belize participating in the DNA barcoding curriculum. | Marissa Bellino

He and Bellino, who teaches and runs the science research program at New York City's public High School for Environmental Studies, decided to build a molecular lab space where students could do research starting with field ecology, and then employing the advanced molecular biology methods needed to produce and analyze DNA barcodes.

"They're working with DNA. They're doing molecular biology," Harris said. "Looking at DNA is now a part of nearly all biology, but there are Ph.D. students who haven't worked with these techniques. We should be introducing all of this to students at an earlier age."

Science Associate Editor Melissa McCartney believes the interdisciplinary aspect of the curriculum adds to its value as a teaching tool. "This module empowers students within a creative interplay between molecular and ecological scales," she said. "Students not only learn 'real science,' but they learn that science does not have to be confined to a single field of interest."

Concentrating on the world they live in, the students in the classes conducted by Harris and Bellino in New York and in Belize are doing urban ecology, and looking into such topics as mislabeling of the species of fish sold in city markets and finding the biodiversity of bed bugs in New York City. The bedbug project had students begging exterminators for a few of the dead bugs they would otherwise use to train the bug-sniffing dogs who help locate infestations.

"It's all about getting students to ask questions," Harris said. "The questions often come from the students' own neighborhoods, and they're very interested in answering them."

The analysis of fish being sold was conducted, not only in New York, but in a field test of the program in Belize. There, undergraduate and master's-level students discovered that 66 percent of fish filets that they sampled were mislabeled. The students presented their findings on a nationwide evening news broadcast.

For Harris, the ideal result of winning the IBI Prize and having an essay published in Science would be for other schools to start their own DNA barcoding programs. Background materials for the course explain how schools can, even on a small budget, overcome the biggest obstacle: setting up a barcoding lab.