Science Prizes Awarded to Courses That Explore Worm Mutants and Fungi

Worm mutants and fungi are the raw materials in two courses, both winners of the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction, that show students how to make their own creative contributions to science.

Yale University science undergraduates who take an engaging research course called Endophyte Discovery already have identified endophyte products that might prove useful in degrading polyurethane and in treating Alzheimer’s disease. The students are about three times as likely to pursue a Ph.D. degree as other Yale science graduates, according to Carol Bascom-Slack, a Yale lecturer who is one of the course developers.

And in the University of North Texas Worm Mutants lab, Pamela Padilla’s students learn about the collaboration and work associated with real research by designing their own genetic experiments with the Caenorhabditis elegans worm. The undergraduates have found that just as in a real lab, the “answers” to their scientific questions often are elusive.

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 providing 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 essays about Endophyte Discovery and Worm Mutants were published on 26 October.

“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.”

The Thrill of Discovery

The beauty of Endophyte Discovery as a lab course lies in the fact that many endophytes, symbionts that inhabit healthy plant tissue, have not yet been studied. For instance, the total number of fungal species is estimated in the millions, but fewer than 100,000 have been characterized. From a research point of view, Bascom-Slack said, “endophytes represent a lot of low-hanging fruit.”

Scott Strobel, who is the Henry Ford II professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, conceived of Endophyte Discovery. He brought Bascom-Slack into the project because of her expertise in microbiology and science education. The project’s other collaborator, A. Elizabeth Arnold, came on board because she had developed a similar course, also focusing on endophytes, and was effectively reaching a different student population at Diné College, the tribal college of the Navajo Nation, and at Tucson High Magnet School in Arizona, which serves a very diverse student population in an urban setting. Bascom-Slack said it was the collaborators’ goal to highlight that such discovery-based courses can be successful in all kinds of academic settings, with students of varied levels of preparation.

The course engenders a feeling of project ownership, which helps students learn related core concepts. “We really want students to feel as though the research is theirs,” Bascom-Slack said. “Our premise from the beginning was that project ownership and being really invested in the research gets students excited about science, and it helps them to learn the science better.”

Research started in the class has resulted in the publication of three scientific papers. One paper originated with a student’s interest in identifying an organism that could degrade plastics. Building on research begun by other students, he was able to identify an organism that could degrade polyurethane, as well as the mechanism through which that occurred. The fungus, which came from an Amazonian national park known as the Yasuní, was recently mentioned in a speech by the leader of an Ecuadorian government initiative promising that the park will be protected from oil drilling.

Another student, a senior who took the course as a sophomore, is continuing research that explores an endophyte product helpful at preventing the aggregation of amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “The real success of the module,” said Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science, “may lie in each participating student realizing that they have a real possibility for making a novel discovery.”

A Creative Approach to Science

When Padilla’s professors owned up to not knowing the answers to many questions in biology, she saw that as an opportunity, a door opening into interesting realms. “I liked that professors said, ‘Well, we don’t know that,’” she said. Now an associate professor of biology at the University of North Texas, Padilla has tried to lead other would-be scientists to such opportunities, “to make students think more independently about what we don’t know.”

She credited a graduate school mentor at the University of New Mexico, who had a degree in poetry as well as in the sciences, and a post-doc mentor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with demonstrating an aspect of science that often gets overlooked: creativity. “If you’re interested in being a scientist, then you need to ask your own questions,” Padilla said. “How do you teach creativity? I always ask myself that.”

Unlike most genetics classes, in which known outcomes are re-created through a series of steps, Worm Mutants gets students to think about what regulates certain traits of C. elegans at a genetic level. Students choose a biological process that interests them, such as how neurons function to regulate muscle movement. They then try to identify a worm mutant that doesn’t move normally. They communicate about their work by writing a research proposal describing background, hypotheses, methods, preliminary data collection (identifying their mutants), data interpretation, and possible future work. The final research proposals, which include the students’ own ideas and conclusions, show an understanding of the concept of a genetic screen as well as the nature of scientific inquiry.

Because there is no guarantee that students will be able to identify a mutant demonstrating the trait in which they are interested, there are no right or wrong answers in the lab module. There is only inquiry and experimentation, with no predetermined outcome, and students are graded on participation, proposal content, and a team-based presentation. “It challenges them,” Padilla said, “because they’re so used to, ‘Learn this, and you’ll get such and such a grade.’ This is about learning how to think.”

Most students rise to the occasion, though, and are “really happy that we trust them to do something that’s scientifically interesting,” Padilla said. They also learn that mutants aren’t necessarily freakish sci-fi creatures with three heads. To encourage students’ creativity, Padilla allows them to present their work using smart phones and video, resulting in some humorous YouTube videos, including one entitled, “Geneticists Say the Darndest Things” and a rap about the fruit fly Drosophila.

The IBI award “could spark other faculties’ interest to improve the delivery of information, so that students are encouraged to think creatively,” Padilla said. “I’m especially thinking about students in large classes and the state universities that might not have the best funding.”

“I’d love to encourage other people who might be thinking about including an inquiry-based course, but who might be intimidated by the idea,” Bascom-Slack agreed. “For future scientists, doctors, and politicians, if we can make an impact on any undergraduate’s experience and understanding of science, then it’s mission accomplished.”

Read the essay, “A Mutant Search—Caenorhabditis elegans and Gene Discovery,” by Pamela Padilla and Candace LaRue.

Read the essay, “Student-Directed Discovery of the Plant Microbiome and Its Products,” by Carol Bascom-Slack and colleagues.