News

November 13, 2009

New General Biology Approach Prepares Students for Independent Research

Interdisciplinary focus geared toward real-world applications

Gone are the days when students completed weekly labs with predetermined outcomes designed to illustrate a specific concept. Instead, a new format in General Biology 101 allows students to have more autonomy in open-ended, interdisciplinary lab modules.

“This is crucial in our first semester biology courses since these types of experiments form the basis of long-term research projects,” says Laurie Caslake, associate professor and head of biology. “We hope that exposing students to this type of research will stimulate them to learn and improve their technical and scientific reasoning skills, as well as interest them in continuing in biology and, ultimately, performing independent research or an honors thesis in biology.”

Students work in small groups on three modules lasting three to four weeks each. In the first module, students study microbial diversity by collecting samples from their environment and cultivating them in lab. In the second module, students investigate the cell cycle and cancer by counting tumor cells as they grow and determining the growth rate and time tumor cells require to complete cell division. They also use common chemotherapeutic drugs to inhibit tumor growth and investigate requirements cells need to progress through the cell cycle. Module three involves the exploration of genetics using fruit flies. Students try to assess whether chromosomal mutation alters the flies’ response to alcohol.

According to Caslake, the interdisciplinary focus of the modules appeals to the approximately two-thirds of the students taking the class who are not biology majors.

“Many of the current problems facing society are interdisciplinary–health care, global warming, food production,” says Caslake. “By having students working across disciplines starting in their first year, they will see biology’s contribution to the solutions to these challenges.”

According to John Drummond, general biology laboratory coordinator, the modules enable students to understand science as a process. He is already receiving positive feedback. The cancer module enabled one student whose relative is a cancer survivor to understand more about the disease. Another biology major enjoyed the freedom to choose the lab’s direction.

“One recurring theme with the new lab format is real-world applications,” explains Drummond. “Here’s an example: We’ve devised alternative forms of assessment for each module. At the conclusion of module one, students present posters summarizing their efforts. These posters are in the style presented at professional conferences. Their peers and faculty are invited to review their posters. We also feel these labs provide students with a glimpse of what conducting research in a lab is really like, hopefully stimulating interest in independent research later as juniors and seniors.”

In module three, students use fruit flies as a model for alcoholism. They get fruit flies “drunk” to test the impact a particular mutation has on the flies’ responses to alcohol. Upper-level students will take the initial research and test it further in their own labs where it eventually could tie into ongoing research by Elaine Reynolds, associate professor of biology and chair of neuroscience.

The labs also incorporate technology familiar to students. For module two, students use iMovie ’09 to develop a five-minute movie detailing cell division and then upload it to YouTube and link it to a WordPress web page, allowing other students and faculty to comment on and critique the videos.

“By starting our students out with these hypothesis-driven experiments, we inoculate them in the scientific process at the earliest stage,” says Caslake. “This experience is something we can count on in our upper-level courses and allows us to expect higher-level thought processes.”

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