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'Worm Mutants' discovery-based genetics course wins Science magazine prize

Students learn how mutations help reveal the function of particular genes

American Association for the Advancement of Science

When Pamela Padilla's professors owned up to not knowing the answers to many questions in biology, she saw that as an opportunity, a door opening into interesting realms. "I liked that professors said, 'Well, we don't know that,'" says Padilla, now an associate professor of biology at the University of North Texas (UNT). Throughout her career, Padilla has tried to lead other would-be scientists to such opportunities, "to make students think more independently about what we don't know."

Padilla's lab module Worm Mutants allows students to formulate their own questions and lay out their own experimental plans. Because of its effectiveness at getting students to think about and experience the processes and concepts involved, rather than having them learn them by rote, Worm Mutants has been selected 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 Worm Mutants will be published on October 26.

"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."

Padilla grew up around a ranch in New Mexico, becoming interested in animals and science from an early age. She loved biology but was also interested in geology, astronomy and engineering. On her way to becoming the first person in her family to attend college and the first scientist in her extended family, Padilla had reached her sophomore year in high school when a geology teacher told her she should consider science as a career.

She credits a graduate school mentor at the University of New Mexico, who had a degree in poetry as well as in the sciences, and a post-doc mentor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with demonstrating an aspect of science that often gets overlooked: creativity. "If you're interested in being a scientist, then you need to ask your own questions," Padilla says. "How do you teach creativity? I always ask myself that."

Padilla says she feels strongly that it is her responsibility to teach and lead others to research. "I have been helped along the way," she says. "I didn't have the resources to get a PhD. I have to pay that back. Anyone who gets grants, scholarships, we're responsible to do this."

Unlike most genetics classes, in which known outcomes are re-created through a series of steps, Worm Mutants gets students to think about what regulates certain traits of Caenorhabditis elegans at a genetic level. Students choose a biological process that interests them, such as how neurons function to regulate muscle movement. They then try to identify a worm mutant that doesn't move normally. They communicate about their work by writing a research proposal describing background, hypotheses, methods, preliminary data collection (identifying their mutants), data interpretation, and possible future work. The final research proposals, which include the students' own ideas and conclusions, show an understanding of the concept of a genetic screen as well as the nature of scientific inquiry.

"Through application of approaches used by geneticists," says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science, "students determine the parameters of their experiments, collect and analyze data that they deem necessary, and draw their own conclusions."

Because there is no guarantee that students will be able to identify a mutant demonstrating the trait in which they are interested, there are no right or wrong answers in the lab module. There is only inquiry and experimentation, with no predetermined outcome, and students are graded on participation, proposal content, and a team-based presentation. "It challenges them," says Padilla, "because they're so used to, 'Learn this, and you'll get such and such a grade.' This is about learning how to think."

Most students rise to the occasion, though, and are "really happy that we trust them to do something that's scientifically interesting," Padilla says. They often like the idea that they can find something new, and learn about the collaboration and work associated with real research. They also learn that mutants aren't necessarily freakish sci-fi creatures with three heads. To encourage students' creativity, Padilla allows them to present their work using smart phones and video, resulting in some humorous YouTube videos, including one entitled, "Geneticists Say the Darndest Things" and a rap about Drosophila.

Ultimately, the students learn key genetic concepts through the Worm Mutants course. "I think we teach them more in this class that I was exposed to," says Padilla. "They do learn and appreciate genetic models."

Regarding her IBI award and the corresponding essay that will be published in Science, Padilla says that she hopes, "it could spark other faculties' interest to improve the delivery of information, so that students are encouraged to think creatively. I'm especially thinking about students in large classes and the state universities that might not have the best funding.

"How do we reach the students at big school like UNT? I'm interested in reaching large numbers of students."


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