Biology students at the University of Minnesota take a course in their very first semester in which they propose their own gene-based solution to a problem. Among the projects they have worked on was a camouflage military suit that could change color through the use of a gene that allows an octopus to camouflage itself — a technology that happened to be developed by the U.S. military a few years later.
"We've got these undergrads who propose amazingly practical, valuable, doable and sophisticated projects," said Sue Wick, director of biology major undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota and one of four professors there who developed the course.
Because of its effectiveness at teaching undergraduates how to think like professional biologists, the Genetic Engineering Proposal curriculum module has received the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).
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 Genetic Engineering Proposal, written by course co-creators Wick, Mark Decker, David Matthes and Robin Wright, was published on 27 September.
"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."
From its inception, the Genetic Engineering Proposal course module has applied one main principle: that students should do biology, rather than just read about it. This idea was familiar to Wick, even when she was taking high school biology at her Milwaukee, Wisconsin all-girls high school. Her teacher, a former medical technologist, made sure her students' science education was inquiry-based.
"There was inquiry, the idea of exploring, that we didn't know everything, that there were still so many things to discover, to explore and find out about," Wick said.
As a professor at the University of Minnesota, Wick joined an effort spearheaded by Wright to implement a revised course for biology majors. Initially, students were asked to work on the solutions to problems that were not of their own choosing. Before long, however, the professors realized that the students' interests were far more wide-ranging than the pre-selected topics. They also realized that although allowing the students to choose their own topics would have a predictable benefit in their degree of engagement, it would also open up the format of the class in less predictable ways.
"We knew this was kind of a can of worms," Wick said. "It entirely changed the dynamic of what we do in class." Each student brings an idea for discussion within a team of ten or so, and each idea is explored with regard to its feasibility and value. Ethical and environmental concerns also spark discussion. Class instructors function like consultants or coaches, helping students to get the information they need to settle on a topic. Ultimately, the students do not carry out the experiments they have proposed (which could take years), but they do the groundwork that gets them visualizing how the project could be implemented and how obstacles could be surmounted. "The point is to get students thinking about what is possible," said Wick. "What can you do if you start manipulating genes?"
Science Associate Editor Melissa McCartney agreed. "The Genetic Engineering Proposal provides students with an exploratory experience and ownership of their ideas," she said. "It also gives students an opportunity to think about science at a higher level than what is possible in a traditional 'wet lab.'"
Among the important projects students have worked on was a proposal to genetically modify a patient's cardiac stem cells to treat heart disease. As with the camouflage suit proposal, a similar approach to heart disease treatment was published not long after Genetic Engineering Proposal students came up with their idea.
Matthes, who specializes in an area of biomedical research, handles such projects. He also teaches the module in an upper-division cell biology course, not only in the students' first-year course. He and the other module developers feel it could be scaled to fit in a wide variety of academic settings, from seminars to huge lecture courses, where it would constitute the lab part of the class.
Read the essay, "Students Propose Genetic Solutions to Societal Problems ," by Sue Wick and colleagues.
Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction .