Microbes on a Georgia mountaintop and mutated Salmonella bacteria are being scrutinized by undergraduate biologists in two innovative courses recognized by the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.
The award-winning course developed by Nitya Jacob at Oxford College in Georgia allows students to do original research of the microbial diversity of nearby granite outcrops through DNA isolation and sequencing.
In the second winning course, created by Purdue University professor Stephanie Gardner and colleagues, students participate in Salmonella research so authentic that their discoveries have been published in a science journal with 30 of the undergraduates listed as co-authors.
The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction 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 providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Essays by Nitya and Gardner and her colleagues, which explain their winning projects, were published in the 30 March issue of the journal Science.
“We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief 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.”
Genetic Investigations on a Georgia Mountain
Although Nitya Jacob chose a science-only course of study in her junior year of high school in her native India, she had no time in the lab, no experience of actually doing science. It wasn’t until she came to the United States to attend college that she experienced working in a laboratory, which she found “transformational.”
“All students should begin their journey into the world of scientific discovery as early as possible,” said Jacob, an associate professor of biology at Oxford College, an undergraduate division of Emory University.
In 2005-2006, after being hired by Emory, Jacob was motivated by a plan to require all entering students to take a genetics course to make significant changes in the lab instruction. Reading through curriculum materials submitted to the National Science Foundation, she saw the promise of microbial investigation as a way to boost the introductory lab class.
By chance, a colleague of Jacob’s knew about granite outcrops in the local area where the microbial ecology was virtually unstudied. “What was interesting to me was that no one had really investigated the microbial aspect of them,” Jacob said. “I was excited that there was such a thing.”
Among the students at Oxford who take the lab course, the vast majority are considering medical school, Jacob said. “There are some who say, ‘It definitely told me that I don’t like research,’” she noted. “They realize that it’s not straightforward,” said Jacob, “not an easy experience.”
They also remark, however, about how rewarding it can be at the end of the semester to consolidate their results and realize all the ways data can be analyzed and put together. Some have reported to Jacob that having taken the course helps them in their medical school interviews. “They were able to talk about research with a lot of interest and enthusiasm,” she said.
Problem-Solving Skills from Salmonella Research
For Stephanie Gardner at Purdue, a love of science came well before her freshman year of college. As a young child in northeastern Wisconsin, she pretended she was an ecologist, collecting water samples with a friend and adding sugar packets to them to look for a chemical reaction. Luckily for her students, though, her love of science was coupled with a desire to introduce others to its excitement.
Gardner, along with Purdue researchers Dennis Minchella, Gabriela Weaver, and Laszlo Csonka, began a search for topics that could bring real research into introductory biology classes. What they settled on was a semester-long project involving Salmonella. Although it’s known that a protein called ProP plays a role in how Salmonella maintain their water content, how the protein works is not understood. Adapting an actual project from Csonka’s laboratory, the educators enlisted the students to isolate mutations in the protein in order to help understand its normal function.
At the end of the semester, the students described their results to the class and also presented them in posters to the Department of Biological Sciences. “What they’re getting out of this is critical thinking skills, communication skills, and problem-solving skills,” said Gardner.
To gauge the impact of this educational research module, the designers gave surveys and tests to the students before and after the class. The assessments showed the students had developed increased confidence and interest toward conducting scientific research, and had significant improvements in critical thinking.
“So far, the results are striking,” said Gardner, who added that students who experienced the module were compared to students who took a more traditional lab skills class. “The two groups are having drastically different experiences.”
Gardner said she hopes the Science prize “will give some visibility to this kind of class and will encourage others who have considered offering a class like this to actually pursue it,”
“For me personally, it’s meaningful for the article to show that inquiry can be done at an introductory level,” Jacob said. “People are really skeptical about whether introductory-level students are capable. I hope this will help to change that perspective.”
Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.