Many undergrads learn about genomics from textbooks and lectures. At Washington University in St. Louis, freshmen in a special genomics course have learned by doing. Working in small teams, they isolated and sequenced the DNA of phages—bacteria-infecting viruses that look like something out of War of the Worlds, only in nanoscale. “It not only taught them about genomics and genomic analysis but also resulted in a real contribution to our knowledge base,” says biology professor Kathryn Miller.
The course, part of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance, is just one piece of a widespread effort to change how science is taught at Washington University. That experience will shape how the university utilizes part of its new HHMI grant, which is aimed at helping faculty members make changes throughout the curriculum so that teaching and learning about science better reflect the scientific process. “These curriculum projects allow faculty to collaborate across departments and cross-fertilize ideas of how to teach, what to teach, and how to support the students,” Miller says. “They encourage faculty across the university to think creatively about their teaching and about how to engage students successfully.”
One important goal is to bring authentic research experiences to more students. To do that, the university will incorporate a streamlined version of the phage research project into the standard introductory biology lab course. The phage course will also become an integral part of an introductory computer science lab. “Students in introductory computer science classes will be using biological examples for some of their programming projects,” Miller says. “That’s one of the projects that we’re most excited about.”
The faculty members are also excited about making changes to large classes—organic chemistry, immunology, and introductory biology—so the classes focus more on students’ understanding of how scientists ask and answer questions, with students working in groups to solve scientific problems. And students like the changes too. After the recent introduction of real-world experiments to an undergraduate physical chemistry lab, Miller says, “It went from a course taken by a fraction of the chem majors to something that’s very popular and bulging at the seams with students who seem very enthusiastic about what they’re doing.”