Academic journal article Genetics

Transposing from the Laboratory to the Classroom to Generate Authentic Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Academic journal article Genetics

Transposing from the Laboratory to the Classroom to Generate Authentic Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT Large lecture classes and standardized laboratory exercises are characteristic of introductory biology courses. Previous research has found that these courses do not adequately convey the process of scientific research and the excitement of discovery. Here we propose a model that provides beginning biology students with an inquiry-based, active learning laboratory experience. The Dynamic Genome course replicates a modern research laboratory focused on eukaryotic transposable elements where beginning undergraduates learn key genetics concepts, experimental design, and molecular biological skills. Here we report on two key features of the course, a didactic module and the capstone original research project. The module is a modified version of a published experiment where students experience how virtual transposable elements from rice (Oryza sativa) are assayed for function in transgenic Arabidopsis thaliana. As part of the module, students analyze the phenotypes and genotypes of transgenic plants to determine the requirements for transposition. After mastering the skills and concepts, students participate in an authentic research project where they use computational analysis and PCR to detect transposable element insertion site polymorphism in a panel of diverse maize strains. As a consequence of their engagement in this course, students report large gains in their ability to understand the nature of research and demonstrate that they can apply that knowledge to independent research projects.

BIOLOGY instruction in introductory courses for life science majors has traditionally used a passive lecture format that is reinforced through standardized laboratory exercises. A consequence of this mode of instruction is that students often memorize a series of facts and vocabulary unrelated to any particular living system. Further, because the scientific method is not emphasized, students emerge poorly equipped to design properly controlled experiments or to interpret data. Students who are inadequately engaged by these teaching approaches may fail to achieve the best possible learning outcomes. Consequently, there is a high attrition rate from life science degree programs, and students who do graduate are often underprepared for their chosen careers (Harrison et al. 2011). A number of recent studies have indicated that this conventional mode of instruction is ineffective and that meaningful learning instead requires an intense inquiry-based experience that uses scientific teaching methodologies and research-focused instruction (American Association for the Advancement of Science 2011).

A problem-solving approach to learn science is best implemented when instruction mirrors the research process and students are engaged in addressing biological questions. This scientific approach to teaching applies active learning, immediate feedback, and diversity of instruction techniques to foster critical thinking skills and a richer understanding of the content (Handelsman et al. 2004). While effective at all levels, inquiry-based learning is especially beneficial to undergraduate freshmen and sophomores (Seymour et al. 2004; Derting and Ebert-May 2010). Scientific teaching strategies provide lower division students with a firm foundation for advanced course work (Derting and Ebert-May 2010) and informs these students about career choices in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) (Harrison et al. 2011). Several inquiry-based courses have been reported previously where students participate in semester-long guided research projects that produce learning gains (Hatfull et al. 2006; Call et al. 2007; Lopatto et al. 2008). Building on these successes we saw the need for a discovery-based plant biology course that was modular in format with short, easily adopted, and inexpensive projects.

We developed the Dynamic Genome (DG) course to test whether freshmen could learn genetic principles by performing experiments derived from a research laboratory and focused on a single biological system. …

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