Biology Professor Mark Bergland's first love as a scientist was being out in nature, observing and tracking the behavior of wildlife, such as the foraging habits of yellow-headed blackbirds. In the late 1980s, however, new interests drew him from wildlife biology to molecular biology. He went from the great outdoors to a computer. He switched his focus from wildlife research to monitoring the educational benefits of a system of online case studies and analysis tools that allow students to explore DNA testing and its reverberations in lifelike applications. He became so intrigued with the potential of that online educational system that he left his wildlife research behind.
As one of the creators of that online educational system, known as Case It!, Bergland, and colleagues Karen Klyczek, Chi-Cheng Lin, Mary Lundeberg, Rafael Tosado-Acevedo, Arlin Toro, Dinitra White and Bjorn Wolter, are the winners of the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).
"With Case It!, students are offered case studies with multiple scenarios, for example tracing a mutated gene back through a family tree," says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science, "enabling them to come at a problem from different biological, social and ethical perspectives."
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 Case It! will be published on July 27.
"We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. "At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy."
After earning a Master's degree and a PhD in wildlife management at the University of Michigan, Bergland went to teach and research at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where from 1978 to 1986, he concentrated on blackbirds. But because River Falls is a small school, Bergland taught a wide variety of classes. Much influenced by co-author Klyczek, who was chair of the biology department, Bergland got more interested in molecular biology. He also got more involved in computer programming.
It was after experiencing the workshops organized by BioQUEST, a group of scientists and educators who support education that reflects real-life scientific practices, that Bergland was completely won over to working on Case It! Whereas many computer simulations for science education and even traditional labs required students to follow procedures in a preordained "cookbook" process, the philosophy at BioQUEST promoted open-ended approaches in which students could "solve their own problems and pose their own questions," Bergland says. "That philosophy is what caused this whole project to blossom."
Bergland's attendance at BioQUEST also presented him with a group of colleagues who were interested, not only in inquiry-based learning, but in a case-based approach. Such an approach became the foundation of Case It! What this meant to students was that, instead of looking at concepts with little or no connection to everyday life, students were presented with case descriptions such as a sister who talks her brother into being tested for Huntington's disease. He tests positive for the mutation that can cause the disease, but she is negative. In another case, a woman is diagnosed with HIV during the second trimester of her pregnancy, and it is unclear how she was infected.
In both cases, students read the descriptions and use Case It! to run the corresponding tests. As they gather information surrounding the cases, it becomes possible for them to role-play the people being tested, their family members, the health care providers, lab technicians and researchers.
"They literally become the people in the case, and they learn more about molecular biology," Bergland says. "They have to look up the answers and respond. They learn things on their own.
"It gives students a sense of responsibility."
By exploring the bigger picture associated with the testing, students are often profoundly drawn into the science, Bergland says. "It's a way of really engaging students. It's a really powerful tool. It relates science to everyday life."
Some students even decide to pursue certain careers based on their experience with Case It!, says Bergland. "I've had students say they'd like to go into genetics counseling or health counseling."
Like in real life, the testing results are not always clear cut. Students encounter the kinds of problems and quandaries that scientists find. In the case of the HIV-infected pregnant woman, for example, preliminary screening does not determine definitively whether the woman's baby is also infected. Students then go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site for guidelines on more definitive testing.
In some instances, students can use the Case It! software to extend what they do in actual wet labs. Students collaborating on the nationwide Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance phage genomics project (HHMI SEA PHAGES)—which enlists students in the discovery of microorganisms in soil—are able to identify phages in actual soil samples, and the Case It! software can help with this identification process.
Because Case It! can work on any DNA samples or protein sequences, motivated students, even at the undergraduate level, can use the software to develop their own cases. For example, Department colleagues of Bergland, Kim and Bradley Mogen, along with co-author Klyczek, have begun a project on honeybees related to Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon that has greatly reduced the bees' populations. Using Case It!, student research assistants have developed a case based on the honeybee research.
Case It! has been used in such far-flung places as Zimbabwe, where it assisted in HIV education, established many interesting cross-cultural connections between Zimbabweans and Americans, and further drove home the relevance of molecular biology in the world. Bergland hopes to keep sharing it with teachers all over, pointing out the software is downloadable for free. Although the workshops he and his colleagues conduct seem to be the most effective way to introduce educators to the system, the Case It! Web site contains video tutorials.
Enthusiastic about the opportunities represented by Case It!, Bergland want to "expose as many people as possible to this kind of learning.
"That's why this is so exciting. Students who might otherwise read about these techniques in often outdated textbooks have an open-ended software tool that they can download," Bergland says. "This gives students all over the world a way to learn about molecular biology that's really engaging."
To visit Case It!, go to www.caseitproject.org.
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