Public Release:  Science magazine prize goes to computational biology course

High-school students do cutting-edge research on gene expression

American Association for the Advancement of Science

High-school students who experience a seven-week computational biology course called Quantitative Trait Mapping participate in ongoing research being conducted at the Center for Genome Dynamics at the Jackson Laboratory. Some of the students, those who participate in the module as part of a longer, two-semester course, have their results published in peer-reviewed journals. One was invited to share her results at a White House Science Fair. A number of students have moved toward research careers and credit the course with getting them started.

"They do remarkable work for us," says Susan McClatchy, outreach coordinator for the Center for Genome Dynamics. "These students are really going places."

Because of the effectiveness that the Quantitative Trait Mapping (QTM) course module has shown, it has been chosen to win 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 QTM will be published on May 31.

"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."

The varied influences of McClatchy's own background made her a natural for the QTM program--and for bringing the thrill of science to young people. Although she was always drawn to science and nature, it was in college that she found science and math instructors who "opened up an entirely new world" to her. Eschewing the big university experience as an undergraduate, McClatchy attended a community college and a state school, where classes were small. "That counted for a lot," she says. "I was able to get to know these professors who were really passionate about science."

After graduating with a degree in biology, McClatchy taught for eight years before entering graduate school in computational biology. After taking a job at the Jackson Laboratory in 2004, she taught extensively at research institutions and professional conferences. Her students were researchers interested in learning about the Jackson Laboratory's Mouse Genome Informatics, a resource of data, tools and analyses involving mouse models that help with the study of human health and disease.

In 2010, McClatchy joined Gary Churchill, a statistic geneticist and director of the Center for Genome Dynamics, on providing a two-semester research course offered to talented high-school students. QTM is an integral component of that two-semester course.

Students of the course, who attend public math and science magnet schools and come from a very wide range of financial backgrounds, meet with their teachers during the week and then attend a weekly Web conference with Churchill and McClatchy from the Jackson Laboratory. Churchill acts as the students' scientific mentor, and the exposure the students have to a professional scientist is invaluable.

"The innovative use of Web conferencing removes traditional barriers to accessing intellectual resources: the scientists," says Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science.

McClatchy points out that all the students need in order to take the course is a computer and an Internet connection. "This is an opportunity for students from any kind of financial background to do cutting-edge research," she says.

The students, like real researchers, begin with an extensive literature review on a chosen topic. They then formulate their own hypotheses, using data collected at the Jackson Laboratory or available from public collections, and choose analytical strategies to address their hypotheses.

Pursuing their own hypotheses, where there is no guaranteed outcome, is far more interesting and exciting than "cookbook" labs. The process, however, can be frustrating for students, particularly academically talented students who are used to knowing all the answers.

"They're used to an arrangement where, if you do the work, there's this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," McClatchy says. "But real research isn't like that. When they fail, it can be painful for them."

Still, McClatchy says, no student has given up. "They always pull through. They persevere. It's probably the most valuable lesson they get out of this."

The creators of QTM would like to expand its use, but the amount of time required of Churchill, McClatchy and the teachers is considerable. "We devote a lot of time to guidance and support," says McClatchy. "Our time is not scalable, and the time of the teachers we work with is not scalable. It's that labor and that devotion that's limiting."

Partly for that reason, QTM will be piloted this year as a program for undergraduate biology classes. McClatchy says professors at the college level are inclined to have more extensive scientific backgrounds, so they will most likely require less assistance. Also, they are more likely to have colleagues, such as computing specialists, with whom they can collaborate. Professors at the University of Maine and University of Connecticut are ready to use the curriculum this fall.

The essay in Science on QTM invites educators and scientists to join the weekly Web conferences and to learn how to implement the course module. McClatchy also directs anyone who is interested to a Web site (http://www.sysgenonline.org).

Winning the IBI prize, McClatchy says, is important to help get the word out.

"What we've been doing has been hidden away for way too long," she says. "This allows us to let the world know about it."

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