Science Magazine Honors Purdue Lab Class with Award
April 2, 2012
Class guides college freshmen to discover mutations in Salmonella
In a freshman biology class at Purdue University, students participate in research so authentic that their discoveries have been published in a science journal with thirty of the undergraduates listed as co-authors.
"We wanted to increase student enthusiasm right away, as soon as they get to college," says Purdue professor Stephanie Gardner, one of the creators of the program. "We wanted to get them doing science, not just learning facts."
To acknowledge this success in bringing students into the world of scientific research, the journal Science has chosen Gardner and her colleagues to receive the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.
"Alumni of the course report feeling empowered and privileged to have been a part of projects generating results," says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. "The greatest stamp of approval came from the scientific community itself, who reviewed and agreed to publish results obtained in these classes with students as co-authors."
The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about Purdue's innovative biology lab class, by Gardner, Dennis Minchella, Gabriela Weaver, and Laszlo Csonka, will be published on March 30.
"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources."
For Gardner herself, a love of science came well before her freshman year of college. As a young child in northeastern Wisconsin, she pretended she was an ecologist, collecting water samples with a friend and adding sugar packets to them to look for a chemical reaction. Luckily for her students, though, her love of science was coupled with a desire to introduce others to its excitement.
After majoring in biology in college and earning a PhD in neurophysics at the University of Wisconsin, where she did some teaching as a graduate student, she did an all-research post-doctoral fellowship. Then she took a turn away from research. "I really missed teaching," Gardner says, so she took a teaching job at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
Later, at Purdue, Gardner met Weaver, who co-founded the Center for Authentic Scientific Practice in Education at Purdue and was already involving students in authentic chemistry research. Gardner says Minchella approached her with the idea of working real research into introductory biology classes, and the two of them set about identifying research topics that could work.
What they settled on was a semester-long project involving Salmonella. Although it's known that a protein called ProP plays a role in Salmonella's osmotic regulation, or maintenance of its water content, how the protein works is not understood. Adapting an actual project from Purdue's Csonka laboratory, the project creators enlisted the students to isolate mutations in the protein to examine the behavior of bacteria that were different in order to help understand normal function.
At the end of the semester, the students described their results to the class and also presented them in posters to the Department of Biological Sciences. "What they're getting out of this is critical thinking skills, communication skills, and problem-solving skills," says Gardner. The results from two semesters were published in a peer-reviewed journal, and thirty students received co-author bylines.
To gauge the impact of this educational research module, the designers gave surveys to the students before and after the class. The surveys showed the students acknowledging they had been involved in the process of discovery and experiencing increased confidence and interest toward conducting scientific research. A Critical Thinking Assessment Test developed by a National Science Foundation project at Tennessee Tech University revealed significant improvement in critical thinking.
"So far, the results are striking," says Gardner, who adds that students who experienced the module were compared to students who took a more traditional lab skills class. "The two groups are having drastically different experiences."
Long-term evaluation of the students who took the module will help answer the questions of how well they perform in their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) coursework after the class, and whether they are more likely to stay in STEM majors, seek out research opportunities, and pursue graduate degrees in research or STEM disciplines.
"Anecdotally, I know the class has had a huge impact on them," Gardner says, "but we have to wait [to get definitive results]."
Meanwhile, the research the students are involved in can be repeated—new mutations were isolated the last time the course was completed—and the designers have ideas for how to extend this same research. They have also developed other ideas for projects and feel the format can be applied at other institutions, as long as there is someone "who knows microbiology" on site.
"It's a robust system and pretty transferable," says Gardner.
In fact, Gardner hopes winning the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction and publishing an essay in Science about the project will help other institutions to adopt similar approaches.
"I hope this award will give some visibility to this kind of class and will encourage others who have considered offering a class like this to actually pursue it," Gardner says.
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