A module of the introductory biology course at the University of Minnesota, called Foundations of Biology, recently won the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction from the journal Science. This prize was established to “encourage innovation and excellence in education by recognizing outstanding, inquiry-based science […] education modules.” The Genetic Engineering Proposal Project received this distinction, and was detailed in the September 27th issue of Science in an essay by course directors Sue Wick, Mark Decker, David Matthes, and Robin Wright.
The College of Biological Sciences (CBS) instituted the Foundations of Biology course in 2007 to replace their traditional, lecture-style courses. With over 1,800 students, CBS faced a challenge in re-vamping their curriculum towards an intimate, group-based learning environment. Each Foundations of Biology class contains around 125 students, broken into groups of nine, who work together to answer a research question of their own design. The students use online resources, published research, and assistance from faculty to plan experiments that will address their question. This plan gets described in a project proposal, and students conclude the semester by presenting their ideas at a poster session, much like scientists do with their research at international meetings. “The course was more effective [than lecture-style courses] in teaching applicable biology and showing students how biology is actually used in research in the real world,” said CBS student Jillian Johnson, a junior and microbiology major. “We didn’t just march through concepts and learn the theory behind them without ever putting them to use.”
The research questions addressed are real-world problems that interest students that can be solved with a genetic approach. Some examples include how to remove environmental toxins using microorganisms or plants, how to use gene therapy to treat a genetic disease, and how to enhance the nutritional value of crops to benefit developing countries. Along the way to answering these questions, students learn about the biology of the system (such as human genetics or the growth cycle of a plant) and the cutting-edge research techniques being used by experts in the field.
Such material can certainly be taught in a lecture-style course, but the added engagement and rigor of seeking out the information gives students a sense of pride and ownership of their work. “[The course instructors] throw you into deep water right away,” says Johnson. “They tell you, ‘you’re going do develop a genetically modified organism’ and we’re like, ‘cool, what is that?’ The course is helpful, yet stressful because of the learn-as-you-go style.” In course evaluations, students consistently indicate that the project-based learning environment helps them develop their powers of scientific reasoning and teamwork, essential components to any post-undergraduate endeavor such as professional and graduate degrees, or employment at an academic institution or biological sciences company.