When biology professor Susan Singer was a college student, her freshman science classes were held in huge lecture halls, where she and her classmates listened and took notes, preparing themselves for a weekly test. She said it was deadening. Luckily, Singer had experienced what it was like to do scientific research much earlier, in middle school and high school and even as a child, when her parents allowed her to graft the trees in their backyard.
Wanting to replicate the kind of research exposure she encountered outside of her freshman science classes, Singer has developed a Web-based undergraduate teaching tool called Genomics Explorers, which is the winner of the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).
Science’s IBI 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 Genomics Explorers was published on 25 January.
“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.”
Singer started college as an engineering major, but she had always had a fascination with the study of education and decided to get a teaching credential while still an undergraduate. Because engineering wasn’t the best specialty for a K-12 teacher, she went back to the interest she had courted as a child when grafting trees in her backyard. “It was an excuse to come back to biology,” said Singer, who earned her undergraduate degree, a Master’s and a Ph.D. in biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Her specialties these days include investigating flowering in legumes and genomics problem-solving, and she is the Laurence McKinley Gould Professor in the biology and cognitive science departments at Carleton College. Also engaged in research on learning in genomics and deeply involved in the study of science education, Singer is currently on leave from Carleton and is serving as the director of the U.S. National Science Foundation undergraduate education division.
As a genomics teaching tool, Genomics Explorers helps students make use of the huge opportunity that exists to explore and make discoveries using genomic data sets. Often the scope and scale of such data sets, not to mention the many ways in which the data can be approached, are overwhelming to students. Genomics Explorers, a Web site, offers students strategies and practical tools for approaching the data so that the students can get to and follow a biological line of inquiry that interests them. With some of the logistical methodology issues handled by the Web site, such how to conduct a gene expression analysis, class discussions are freed up for deeper questions about the research. Students as a class are able to reflect on the nature of doing research and the nature of data analysis.
An important challenge that Genomics Explorers has overcome has been calibrating the degree to which students are guided through their research, so that they are able to connect with biological questions without the process becoming too rigidly mapped out.
“Genomics Explorers is able to strike the fine balance between providing a learning structure, while still allowing students to be thinking on their own,” said Melissa McCartney, an associate editor at Science.
The organisms focused on in classes using Genomics Explorers at Carleton and at Vassar College—the partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and the pale anemone (Aiptasia pallida) respectively—are “non-model” organisms, which means they have not been studied or written about extensively. This allows students to actually make discoveries in their research.
“What my students find is really novel,” Singer said. “There is the potential for doing really interesting work.”
Previous to the implementation of Genomics Explorers, Singer said students found it difficult to select the scale at which they wanted to explore genomic data, hunting for a single, often poorly chosen gene and finding themselves inundated by irrelevant data. The question was how to allow them the possibility of doing real research while still allowing the students to follow their own fascinations and to cultivate an ownership of their research.
As Singer points out, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology stressed in a 2012 report that science, technology, engineering, and math students need to experience real research, not “cookbook” labs that simply walk them through steps to a known outcome, with no room for following their own curiosity or thinking up approaches of their own design.
“The challenge in Genomics Explorers was getting risers between the steps to be the right height,” Singer said.
Although Singer’s students sometimes panic at the open-endedness of the Genomics Explorers process, they begin to develop trust in their own ideas, she said. For instance, one group of students became interested in the possibility of increasing the biomass of the partridge pea and improving its value as a biofuel. Their research zoomed in on their interest, and was filtered to reflect that line of inquiry.
“They owned it,” said Singer, adding that such “ownership” allows the students to engage their own creativity as they look at a research question.
Singer hopes that winning the IBI prize and publishing an essay in Science about Genomics Explorers will allow other teachers to engage their students in similar ways.
“What I hope most,” she said, “is that this encourages instructors to bring more authentic research experiences into their teaching laboratories.”
Read the essay, “Keeping an Eye on Biology,” by Susan Singer and colleagues.
Learn more about Genomics Explorers.
Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.