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Inquiring minds want to grow

Science magazine recognizes the U’s approach to—and resounding success at—teaching introductory biology.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The foundation of biology—indeed of all science—isn’t “knowing.”

It’s not knowing, and being curious enough to gather the evidence necessary to answer questions about how nature works or how it can be put to use.

That’s why entering students in the University of Minnesota’s Foundations of Biology sequence find themselves immersed in the culture of modern biology from the day they step through the door. During their first semester, they work in teams—just as professional biologists do—to research and propose a gene-based solution to a societal problem they have chosen.

The students spend about 40 percent of class time on their projects, working in teams with their peers and receiving feedback from instructors. At term’s end, they present their proposals in poster form to share their ideas and get further feedback on them.

It’s a far cry from the introductory biology of yesterday, where students took notes at lectures, memorized the material, and fed it back at exams. And it’s exactly the kind of instruction Science magazine, a leading journal for all branches of science, wanted to encourage when it instituted its Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. The prize was offered only in 2012 and 2013, with 27 winners overall.

This September, the U’s College of Biological Sciences won the prize for its approach, which has also won rave reviews from students.

“Over the course of the semester, what I came to really appreciate about Foundations of Biology is how interactive and mentally stimulating it was to go to class,” says Gretchen Floan, an undergrad who took the course in fall 2011. “Also, I really enjoyed working with my team.”

An account of the Foundations of Biology philosophy and experience appeared in Science in September. Authors are four CBS faculty: Robin Wright (also associate dean of the college), Susan Wick, Mark Decker, and David Matthes. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6153/1467.summary

Be a biologist—no waiting

As the future biologists construct their “genetic engineering proposals” to solve the problems of their choice, the instructors guide them through questions of experimental design, appropriate resources, data analysis, presentation strategies, teamwork, and research ethics. Based on feedback and outcomes of some 3,000 students who have taken the course in the last six years, it succeeds in engaging students in the adventure of science—an adventure whose creative aspect isn’t always appreciated.

“The whole idea is a course where you learn to do biology,” says Wright. “[It’s about using] class time to learn how to apply what you know. For example, suppose you know structure of gene. How does that affect breast cancer? Or how you could use it to get more omega-3’s?

“At the core, it changes in a fundamental way the relationship you as a professor have with a student. Now you’re the coach.”

And just as the teaching is the antithesis of “cookbook,” so are some of the approaches students must discover. Often, their projects require them to propose research methods found in neither class discussions nor their textbook. One example: the use of retroviruses—viruses like HIV, based on RNA rather than DNA—in gene therapy.

The experience gives students a taste of the kinds of intellectual work that awaits them as practicing biologists.

Great minds …

“The ideas students come up with for projects are very realistic,” notes Wick. “In fact, in several cases, professional scientists have [coincidentally] had the same ideas and published research on them after the posters were completed.”

Examples of those good ideas include a 2009 proposal to genetically modify a patient’s cardiac stem cells to treat heart disease; two years later, a similar approach appeared in the scientific literature. And in 2008, students proposed taking a gene for a squid protein that helps the animals become camouflaged in their environment and placing the gene into microorganisms that would be incorporated into a military camouflage suit. In 2012 a publication about camouflage based on the protein appeared. 

Perhaps most importantly, today’s scientists are highly collaborative, and the value of early experience with teamwork can’t be overstated.  

“The teamwork requirements of Foundations are daunting at first,” says undergrad Weston Sternitzke. “But looking back on [that] semester, I know that without my team I would have seriously missed out.”

Contact the writer at morri029@umn.edu

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