A Large Lab Course That Delivers Genuine Research Experience

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Title of Abstract: A Large Lab Course That Delivers Genuine Research Experience

Name of Author: Martha Cyert
Author Company or Institution: Stanford University
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cell Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: inquiry based laboratory course critical thinking communication skills cell biology molecular biology cancer

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): T. Stearns, Stanford University D. Hekmat-Scafe, Stanford University P. Seawell, Stanford University S. Brownell, Stanford University M. Kloser, University of Notre Dame

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: We revised the introductory molecular biology laboratory course that is required of all Biology majors at Stanford University and taken as well by many students considering medical school post-graduation. The course was transformed from a ‘cook book’ type lab course to one that provides a rigorous, research-based experience for students, and utilizes modern research tools to address a single longitudinal question. After the scale-up of this course, every biology major and pre-med student at Stanford engages in an authentic research project as part of their undergraduate curriculum, meeting the goals of Bio2010 (NRC 2003) and Vision and Change (Brewer 2011) by providing all students the experience of authentic research. Enrollment in Bio 44X is approximately 250 students. Each 20 student section is taught by a Ph.D.-level instructor and a graduate student teaching assistant. Weekly, a 4-hour lab section, and a 75-minute discussion section are taught. The course was designed using two guiding principles: that introductory-level students are best engaged by research problems relevant to human biology, and that use of a model organism would provide students the best opportunity to accomplish the desired research objectives and be most practical for a large introductory laboratory course. Thus, we chose to have students assess the phenotypic defects associated with mutant alleles of the p53 tumor suppressor isolated from human tumors. Students analyze mutant and wild-type p53 using strains of the yeast S. cerevisiae engineered to express human p53 and reporter genes that respond to transcriptional activation by p53. The intended outcome was to provide a course that increases students’ critical thinking skills and promote peer collaboration on a scientific project. We aimed to increase student confidence and interest in research-related tasks, including the ability to analyze data, work on a single longitudinal project, and communicate scientific findings.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Over ten weeks, students work in pairs in small lab sections. Using online databases and sequence information, students determine the identity and location of the mutation under study. Using additional background information, student teams construct testable hypotheses about the possible functional defect about each p53 mutant. During sequential laboratory sessions, students assay transcriptional activation of two reporter genes in vivo, measure the level of the p53 mutant protein in whole-cell extracts, quantify DNA-binding in vitro, and evaluate nuclear localization of a GFP-tagged mutant p53. For some analyses, student teams contribute to experimental design by specifying assay parameters (e.g. incubation temperature, response element, induction conditions). For all experiments, instructors emphasize the importance of controls and the power of comparing data with other student pairs working on the same p53 mutant allele. Pre- and post-lab assignments introduce students to relevant background material and reinforce critical-thinking skills. The course culminates with a poster session, during which students compare their results with those of other students who studied either the same, or a different p53 mutant. Although the experimental skills of the students vary widely initially, most students generate data that, when considered in aggregate with all groups working on the same mutant allele, lead to consistent conclusions about the defects associated with that allele. We plan to compile data from multiple iterations of the course to generate publication-quality data for each p53 allele.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: The new course was developed over a two-year pilot period, during which it ran concurrently with the pre-existing course, allowing parallel assessment of the two curricula. In order to assess whether our course met the goal of getting students to think like a scientist in an authentic research setting, we employed a mixed methods approach of pre- and post-course Likert-scale surveys, open-ended written responses, and exams focused exclusively on data analysis and interpretation. Surveys were administered in class on the first and last days of the course. Students were given pre- and post-course surveys that included open-ended questions about students perception of the purpose of the lab course, what they thought was the most important thing they would/did learn, and their perceptions of what it meant to think like a scientist. Additionally, the post-course surveys asked students open-ended questions about their perception of what how their own thinking like a scientist had changed and whether they were interested in pursuing undergraduate research. Students were asked specific Likert-scale questions about what components of the course were important for their understanding of thinking like a scientist.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The major goal of this lab course was to have students develop thinking like a scientist skills. Students were asked, “What do you think is the purpose of this lab course?” on the first day and last day of lab. On the pre-course question, the majority of students (73%) thought that the purpose of the lab course was to “learn techniques,” or “to learn content related to cancer” (17%) and “to practically apply what they had learned in lecture courses” (14%). However, on the post-course survey, the majority of students thought that the purpose of the course was to learn how to “think like a scientist” (84%), including designing an experiment and analyzing data (24%) and understand the process of research (15.5%). Furthermore, in open-ended responses, we found that at the end of the course, students had a much more accurate and sophisticated understanding of what it meant to think like a scientist. Specifically, students at the end of the course focused more on data analysis and collaboration than students at the beginning of the course. When asked to identify which specific aspects of the course were most useful in helping them to “think like a scientist,” the most frequent responses included: (1) Mutant group discussions (27%), (2) Data analysis aspect of postlabs (25%), (3) Performing different experiments on one longitudinal question (24%), (4) Brainstorming experiments, predicting results and comparing actual results to predicted ones (15%), (5) Troubleshooting failed experiments (8%), and (6) Collaborating with other students in the class (8%). Overall, one of the strongest outcomes of this course was to encourage a collaborative atmosphere in the course and to support peer-to-peer scientific discussions among the participants. At the conclusion of the course, many students indicated that they had an increased interest in doing research.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: There were many logistical challenges associated with scaling up the materials required for students to carry out the required experiments. One of the instructors (D. H-S.), devoted significant time to troubleshooting at each step.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: A detailed description of the course and its preliminary assessment are currently being prepared for publication. We plan to distribute all the materials associated with the course. Some of the experiments have been performed by post-graduate students in Ghana during an intensive cell biology workshop sponsored by the American Society for Cell Biology, in which MSC and TPS served as instructors. A significant advantage of using S. cerevisiae as the organism for study, is the relatively inexpensive reagents required for its culture and analysis. Thus, in principle the course is well suited for institutions with relatively restricted budgets and available equipment.

Acknowledgements: Funding for this course came from a NSF TUES grant (DUE-0941984), a Hoagland grant from Stanford, an HHMI education grant and funds from the School of Humanities and Sciences. We are grateful for the support of colleagues in the Department of Biology, specifically Chairman Bob Simoni. Additionally, Rich Shavelson was instrumental in early discussions of course assessment.