Since 2008, almost 1,700 students at 40 colleges and universities have spent a year discovering organisms hidden in the dirt. As part of an innovative course from HHMI’s Science Education Alliance (SEA), the students—primarily freshmen—have isolated at least 1,400 soil-dwelling bacterial viruses, called phages, and analyzed the DNA sequence of almost 100 different phages.
Many participating students report that their discoveries have led them to realize something new: science is not the facts you glean from textbooks, but a dynamic process that leads to new knowledge. Faculty say the course has changed how they think science should be taught. “I’ve learned that students will rise to the challenge that you put in front of them,” says Bryan Gibbon, a biology professor at Baylor University who taught the SEA course for the first time last fall. “If you give them good support, they will do things that you never imagined freshmen could do.”
Now students at 12 more schools will participate in the year-long National Genomics Research Initiative course. Another 14 schools will join the alliance as associate members. “This experience makes excellent students that much more excited,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education. “And it makes students who weren’t sure about their degree of interest in the life sciences a lot more engaged.”
HHMI created the SEA in 2007 to develop resources that enable undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs. Since then, participating faculty have worked together to roll out the course and bring the excitement of experimental research to students in a novel, collaborative way.
The National Genomics Research Initiative is the alliance’s first program, and HHMI has committed $4 million to the course. With these new schools, the course is now being taught in 29 states and Puerto Rico. “I feel like the tide is continuing to roll, that the SEA is really branching out,” says the SEA’s director, Tuajuanda Jordan.
Participating schools usually offer the course as a substitute for their introductory biology laboratory. In the first term, the students isolate phages from locally collected soil. Given the diversity of phages, each one is almost certain to be unique, and the students get to name their newly identified life form. They spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA.
Between terms, the DNA samples are sequenced at one of several research centers across the country. In the second half of the course, the students receive digital files containing their phage’s DNA sequence. The students then learn to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes.
In the first two years that the SEA course has been offered, students completed the process for 37 phages and deposited the DNA sequences into the national GenBank database. At least 50 more will be completed this year, Jordan says. “I hadn’t taught a class before that was so focused on one lab experience. It really works. This is the most engaged class I’ve had ever,” says Kim Mogen, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, who has taught there for 18 years. “This is an amazing experience for them.”
“I’ve learned that students will rise to the challenge that you put in front of them. If you give them good support, they will do things that you never imagined freshmen could do.”
The 12 schools joining the SEA, chosen through a competitive application process, will offer the course beginning in Fall 2011. HHMI provides training, research, and laboratory materials, as well as support from Jordan and her dedicated HHMI staff. “These schools are very diverse with respect to their resources and their size,” Jordan says. “Just reading their applications you can feel the enthusiasm and you can see that they are thinking ahead to the potential impact.”
Ouachita Baptist University in southern Arkansas, which has 1,500 students and about 150 biology majors, hopes the course will help their students build their skills as creative thinkers, says biology professor Ruth Plymale. “Students come to college thinking that they have to memorize information from books,” she says. “We’re just really excited to see how this course improves the ability of the students to think on their own, to really unearth information and discover it.”
The 14 institutions joining the SEA as associate members include two community colleges (Del Mar College in Texas and Southern Maine Community College) and a consortium of four schools in Maine. Faculty from associate schools attend training sessions that allow them to implement all or part of the phage course. Another institution—the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, Maine—is sending staff through the SEA training program so that it can support other Maine colleges that might want to get involved in the future.
“Both full and associate members have some really wonderful ideas about how the course can be transformative, not just within biology but connecting it potentially to other disciplines like chemistry,” Jordan says. “I think that is a good sign that people really think this course can make a difference.”
This fall, Ohio State University will begin offering the course to freshmen who have indicated they want to major in science but might not have the grades and test scores to get into an honors research class. If successful, the school hopes to integrate part of the research experience into an introductory biology lab taken by over 1,000 students, says Caroline Breitenberger, director of Ohio State’s Center for Life Sciences Education. “I’m really looking forward to learning from the experiences of others who have already taught this class. It is a little daunting to implement from the ground up.”
2011 Science Education Alliance Members
College of St. Scholastica
Georgia Gwinnett College
Johns Hopkins University
Montclair State University
Ohio State University
Ouachita Baptist University
Southern Connecticut State University
New Haven, CT
University of Florida
Washington State University
Xavier University of Louisiana
New Orleans, LA
2011 Associate Members
Del Mar College
Corpus Christi, TX
Illinois Wesleyan University
Oklahoma State University
Southern Maine Community College
South Portland, ME
University of Maine Honors College
University of Maine at Fort Kent
Fort Kent, ME
University of Maine at Machias