In a significant victory for science education, Yale University science undergraduates who take an engaging research course called Endophyte Discovery are about three times as likely to pursue a PhD degree as other Yale science graduates, according to the creators of the course.
"We're excited by those numbers and want others to consider adopting similar courses," says Carol Bascom-Slack, a Yale lecturer who is one of the developers of Endophyte Discovery. Bascom-Slack adds that more general research shows that science students who get actual research experience early in their academic careers are more likely to remain in their majors. "Our students are staying in science."
The beauty of Endophyte Discovery as a lab course lies in the fact that many endophytes, symbionts that inhabit healthy plant tissue, have not yet been studied. For instance, the total number of fungal species is estimated in the millions, but fewer than 100,000 have been characterized. Furthermore, endophytes can be found in plants throughout campuses and communities, they can be isolated in a lab setting, and many have antibiotic properties. From a research point of view, "endophytes represent a lot of low-hanging fruit," Bascom-Slack says.
"The real success of the module," says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science, "may lie in each participating student realizing that they have a real possibility for making a novel discovery."
Because of its ability to draw students into the world of scientific discovery, Endophyte Discovery has been selected as the winner of the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).
Science's IBI Prize 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 Endophyte Discovery, by Bascom-Slack, Scott Strobel and A. Elizabeth Arnold, will be published on October 26.
"We're trying to advance science education," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. "This competition provides much-needed recognition to innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science of an article on each laboratory module will help guide educators around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed."
Strobel, who is the Henry Ford II professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, conceived of Endophyte Discovery. He brought Bascom-Slack into the project because of her expertise in microbiology and science education. The other author, Arnold, came on board because she had developed a similar course, also focusing on endophytes, and was effectively reaching a different student population at Diné College, the tribal college of the Navajo Nation, and at Tucson High Magnet School, which serves a very diverse student population in an urban setting. Bascom-Slack says it was the collaborators' goal to highlight that such discovery-based courses can be successful in all kinds of academic settings, with students of varied levels of preparation.
The creators of Endophyte Discovery stress that an important feature of the course is the "project ownership" the course engenders, which Bascom-Slack says really helps students learn related core concepts. "We really want students to feel as though the research is theirs," says Bascom-Slack, adding that students are called on to make decisions shaping their research throughout the course. "Our premise from the beginning was that project ownership and being really invested in the research gets students excited about science, and it helps them to learn the science better."
Research started in the class has resulted in the publication of three scientific papers, which pooled the research of groups of students or represented research that continued after the course ended. The course is designed to springboard students on to further research in other labs on campus.
One research paper originated with a student's interest in identifying an organism that could degrade plastics. Building on research begun by other students, he was able to identify an organism that could degrade polyurethane, as well as the mechanism through which that occurred. The fungus, which came from an Amazonian national park known as the Yasuní, was recently mentioned in a speech by the leader of an Ecuadorian government initiative promising that the park will be protected from oil drilling.
Another student found an endophyte extract that greatly reduced inflammation. Once the extract was purified, the substance was recognized as already discovered, but further research will determine whether this would be a new use for the substance and/or a new source for it.
A third student, a senior who took the course as a sophomore, is continuing research that explores an endophyte product helpful at preventing the aggregation of amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease. As with any of the endophyte products, much work needs to be done on purifying the compound and testing its toxicity.
Bascom-Slack points out that even if these compounds are not usable for the particular purposes the students have in mind, the young researchers have the abilities, the intellectual infrastructure, to continue their exploration. "At the end of the day, it doesn't even matter" if their compound is effective and nontoxic, she says. "They've done so much learning."
Bascom-Slack hopes that her essay in Science will tempt other educators to offer courses similar to Endophyte Discovery, both to inspire science majors and to promote basic science literacy for non-majors.
"I'd love to encourage other people who might be thinking about including an inquiry-based course, but who might be intimidated by the idea," she says. "This might get them to actually do it. For future scientists, doctors, and politicians, if we can make an impact on any undergraduate's experience and understanding of science, then it's mission accomplished."
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