Course offers hands-on science education

Aparna Nathan July 1, 2014 0

A new undergraduate course aims to bring students their first taste of hands-on, cutting-edge research. MCDB 166, titled “From Microbes to Molecules,” is taught this year by Lecturer of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Carol Bascom-Slack and Postdoctoral Associate Tiffany Tsang. The course teaches biological concepts in the context of an ongoing antibiotic discovery project carried out by the students.

There are innumerable types of bacteria, and this course begins to explore a very small sample of them. Image courtesy of Penn State University.

There are innumerable types of bacteria, and this course begins to explore a very small sample of them. Image courtesy of Penn State University.

A typical day in the course provides an integrated lab and lecture experience. Class begins with the lab portion, where students try to discover their own microbe-produced antibiotics. Students can choose any soil sample to test; one even tested a soil sample from his backyard. “They really take ownership of their project,” said Tsang. The next steps include isolating and identifying microbes, growing them in culture, and purifying and testing the products. Lecture each day focuses on a different biological topic related to microbes, including metabolism, cell membranes, and evolution.

“The students’ work is part of a larger effort to combat the antibiotic crisis, or shortage of antibiotics that can treat the largely antibiotic-resistant population of bacteria,” said Tsang. The course currently has nine students enrolled, providing an interactive, personalized environment. The instructors plan to expand the course by holding workshops for instructors from 26 other institutions to share the lab techniques and curriculum. They envision this course as part of a new step in scientific education. “An authentic research experience for students is really pretty important for retaining them in the sciences and for overall learning,” said Bascom-Slack.

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