Designing and Implementing a Hands-On, Inquiry-Based Molecular Biology Course

Article excerpt

Inquiry-based learning was used to enhance an undergraduate molecular biology course at Georgia Southern University, a primarily undergraduate institution in rural southeast Georgia. The goal was to use a long-term, in-class project to accelerate higher-order thinking, thereby enabling students to problem solve and apply their knowledge to novel situations.


Several years ago, I began a project to modify the curriculum for a molecular biology techniques course at Georgia Southern University, a mid-sized undergraduate institution. The course is taught within a traditional biology department, where students play an integral role in faculty research programs. The goal of curriculum reform was to help students bridge the gap between basic knowledge of molecular biology concepts and application of those concepts to novel scientific questions. The course redesign included a strong interdisciplinary math component, engaging students in math applications within molecular biology. Lack of math skills is an ongoing issue and we often see biology majors who have difficulty applying basic math concepts to routine procedures such as solution preparation or cell counts.

The course originally had separate laboratory and lecture components, and students were introduced to one technique after another in a sequential fashion. Although students enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the laboratory, it lacked a conceptual framework to help them understand how individual techniques could be used in a scientific investigation. Students needed to make the connection between knowledge and application, but the curriculum was not facilitating that process.

The course was redesigned using an integrated laboratory-lecture environment with a hands-on, project-based learning curriculum. The Buck Institute for Education defines project-based learning as "a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks" (2002). Project-based learning in the sciences can incorporate relevant, long-term tasks that promote problem solving and analytical skills while emphasizing hands-on experience with technology. This approach is consistent with Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) and National Research Council (NRC) standards that focus on creating an environment that promotes understanding of concepts, develops problem-solving skills, and actively involves students using hands-on activities (NRC 1996, 1999, 2000; PKAL 2002). Many institutions have implemented project-based inquiry approaches as a successful strategy for teaching science (e.g., Land and Greene 2000; Moss 2000; O'Hara and Sanborn 1999; DiPasquale, Mason, and Kolkhorst 2003; Heppert et al. 2002; Cruickshank and Olander 2002). I was further motivated by this approach's potential benefit to minority and female students (Civian et al. 1997; Friedrich and Burstyn 2005), considering these groups routinely represent 70-80% of students enrolled in the class.

Project-based learning model

A subcloning project was chosen as the long-term task for the course because it uses numerous molecular biology techniques in a cohesive and timely manner without encompassing the entire semester. As an end-of-semester outcome, students generate a proposal to address a novel scientific question using the techniques discussed or completed during the course. This final proposal, in the form of a mini-grant application, was designed as the capstone experience for the course, allowing students to apply the knowledge that they had gained throughout the semester.

Exercises from the Unraveling DNA laboratory manual (Winfrey, Rott, and Wortman 1997) were modified for the subcloning project. Unraveling DNA has exercises for cloning the genes that encode for bioluminescence, or biologically produced light (Winfrey, Rott, and Wortman 1997). …