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Class involving DNA isolation wins Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction

Course allows students to investigate microbial diversity in unstudied granite outcrops

American Association for the Advancement of Science


IMAGE: This is Arabia Mountain in Lithonia, Ga. view more

Credit: [Image © Science/AAAS]

Although Nitya Jacob chose a science-only course of study in her junior year of high school in her native India, she had no time in the lab, no experience of actually "doing" science. It wasn't until she came to the United States to attend college that she experienced working in a laboratory, which she found "transformational," she says. Although she felt fortunate to have gotten an extremely solid background of knowledge in India, she became an unwavering advocate of introducing students to actual scientific research early on.

"All students should begin their journey into the world of scientific discovery as early as possible," says Jacob, an associate professor of biology at Oxford College, an undergraduate division of Emory University.

Jacob's research module for introductory-level undergraduates, "Investigating Microbial Diversity on Arabia Mountain," allows students to do original research of the microbial diversity of granite outcrops through DNA isolation and sequencing. Because of its effectiveness at bringing students into real research, it has been chosen to win the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

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 "Investigating Microbial Diversity on Arabia Mountain" will be published on March 30.

"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."

"The module 'Investigating Microbial Diversity on Arabia Mountain' encourages students to develop questions of their own as they explore the uncharacterized microbial community of Arabia Mountain, Georgia" says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. "The module guides students through the scientific process by having them read primary literature, design an experiment, collect and analyze data, and present their data in a written and oral format."

Jacob grew up on a college campus outside the city of Pune, Maharashtra, India. When she came to college in the United States, she studied biology, with a minor in math. She earned her PhD at Ohio State University in plant molecular biology and biotechnology. Jacob then did a post-doc at Knox College in Illinois that was half research and half working with undergraduates. She realized while mentoring undergrads that she wanted to be a science instructor.

In 2005-'06, after being hired by Emory, Jacob was motivated by a plan to require all entering students to take a genetics course to make significant changes in the lab instruction that was being offered. "I felt that I needed to do something substantial with the lab," she says. Reading through materials submitted to the National Science Foundation on improving curriculum and the laboratory experience for students, she saw the promise of microbial investigation as a way to boost the introductory lab class. Her own field of study, involving plant DNA, didn't provide the same opportunity as guiding students to use molecular biology to identify microbes.

By chance, a colleague of Jacob's knew about granite outcrops in the local area where the microbial ecology was virtually unstudied. "What was interesting to me was that no one had really investigated the microbial aspect of them," Jacob says. "I was excited that there was such a thing."

Despite the opportunity presented by the project, some students found the process of doing research wasn't for them. Among the students at Oxford who take the lab course, the vast majority are considering medical school.

"There are some who say, 'It definitely told me that I don't like research,'" Jacob says.

The students remark year after year about the frustration inherent in real research. "They realize that it's not straightforward," says Jacob, "not an easy experience." They also remark, however, about how rewarding it can be at the end of the semester to consolidate their results, particularly when they see other projects in the class and realize all the ways data can be analyzed and put together.

In fact, there are students who actually decide to go to graduate school based on their experience of the class. "They understand what research involves, and they still want to get involved," says Jacob.

Among those who stick with a plan to attend medical school, some have reported to Jacob that having taken the course helps them in medical school interviews. "They were able to talk about research with a lot of interest and enthusiasm," she says. "They are speaking like scientists going into the medical field," exhibiting the science competencies that are increasingly required for medical school admission.

As Jacob continues offering her course, the focus will remain on the microbial ecology of the granite outcrops, although the organisms being studied have changed. Bacteria is the focus now, and archaea is the next area of interest. Jacob points out that the format of the module, including lab techniques that she improved through troubleshooting in her own classroom, could be adopted by other institutions. They wouldn't have to be near outcrops, she mentions. Any field, lake, forest, or other nearby natural setting could serve, with only minor adjustment of the module, Jacob says.

Regarding her winning the IBI Prize and having an article in Science, Jacob says, "For me personally, it's meaningful for the article to show that inquiry can be done at an introductory level. People are really skeptical about whether introductory-level students are capable. I hope this will help to change that perspective."


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