Location: Corn Insects and Crop Genetics ResearchTitle: Keeping an eye on the biology Author
Submitted to: Science
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 1/3/2013
Publication Date: 1/25/2013
Citation: Singer, S.R., Schwarz, J.A., Manduca, C.A., Fox, S.P., Iverson, E.R., Taylor, B., Cannon, S.B., May, G.D., et al. 2013. Keeping an eye on the biology. Science. 339(6118):408-409. Interpretive Summary: The topic of "genomics" can seem daunting and foreign to many people; yet it is a subject that is increasingly common and important -- for example, in debates about genetically modified organisms, or in news about genetic diseases or evolutionary discoveries. This report describes tests of several methods for teaching about genomics research to undergraduate students at two institutions. The approach that worked best was a multi-week lab experience driven by student questions, and guided by a website organized around problem solving strategies that enabled students to successfully create and answer meaningful questions. The students were provided with genomic sequence data from active research projects in plant and animal biology and were then able to use the data, along with both web-based bioinformatic tools and hands-on lab work, to explore and answer those questions. This kind of approach leads to substantive learning about this important new biological field, and should lead to more informed and inquisitive students and citizens.
Technical Abstract: Genomic data sets offer remarkable opportunities for students to explore hypotheses and generate original findings without expensive laboratory equipment and supplies, scaling the benefits of traditional undergraduate research experiences to classrooms. Yet, biology students can become frustrated with online-only activities and miss opportunities to make connections to fascinating biological questions. We have developed a multi-week authentic research experience in genomics, adapted for a plant (Chamaecrista fasciculata -- a plant in the bean and pea family) at Carleton College and an animal (Aiptasia pallida, a sea anemone) at Vassar College, and designed to support student learning with a web-based guide. Genomic data from projects involving collaborators from these colleges and from the USDA-Agricultural Research Service and the National Center for Genome Research were used as the raw material for students' projects. The data are extensive enough that they allow teams of students to come up with meaningful new questions that may not have been asked of the data before. In the case of the plant (Chamaecrista), projects included studies of differences in flowering times between northern and southern populations, and a successful search for the genetic differences that underlie these observable and ecologically important population differences. Comparisons of genomic data to the soybean (Glycine max) genome, using SoyBase and the Legume Information System, helped students identify possible gene functions in Chamaecrista. The use of a project website, with features to help guide and refine students' explorations, helped students progress without constant individual interaction with the professors. These projects in guided exploration of real genomic data sets lead to substantive learning about this important new biological field, and should lead to more informed and inquisitive students and citizens.