Integrating Bioinformatics Across the Curriculum

Return to search results | New search

Title of Abstract: Integrating Bioinformatics Across the Curriculum

Name of Author: William Tapprich
Author Company or Institution: University of Nebraska at Omaha
Author Title: Professor and Chair
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum
Approaches: Assessment, Material Development
Keywords: Bioinformatics Laboratory Inquiry-based Curriculum Genomics

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Mark A. Pauley, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The overall goal of our project is to integrate inquiry-based, hands-on bioinformatics-focused laboratories across the biology curriculum. This is an interdisciplinary effort involving the Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics in the College of Information Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). This project arose from the recognition that many of the interdisciplinary fields driving biology are only gradually becoming part of the undergraduate curriculum. The interdisciplinary nature of biological science is obvious to research teams and professionals, but the integration of emerging fields across the undergraduate biology curriculum is often slow. Bioinformatics is a prime example. Few would challenge the idea that bioinformatics is an indispensable discipline for students in biology. The future will only intensify the need for experience in bioinformatics. Even so, few undergraduate biology programs have integrated bioinformatics experiences into their biology curricula. A number of the central recommendations of Vision and Change have guided our project. As a primary goal, we are integrating core concepts and competencies throughout the biology curriculum. Our laboratories have been permanently integrated into first year biology courses and we are currently implementing new laboratories at all levels of the curriculum. By developing laboratory exercises, we focus on student-centered learning. Active participation, multiple modes of instruction, inquiry-based exercises, cooperative learning and research contexts are all incorporated into the student experience. Our project also engages the biology community. Our project team involves three diverse institutions, our materials are freely available on the project website (, and we have recently organized a research coordination network with thirteen participating institutions.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The project team has developed bioinformatics laboratories for each level of the biology curriculum. Laboratories have been developed based on problems important for cellular/molecular biology and also for ecological/environmental biology. To support the laboratories, we have developed curated databases and assembled bioinformatics tools, all of which are available on the project website. This allows instructors and students in introductory courses to access data and relevant bioinformatics tools in a single location. For upper-level courses, students gain experience with the additional power and occasional pitfalls of public databases and tools. A member of the project team implements the laboratory initially. This implementation is accompanied by assessments that include pre-/posttests and student focus groups. Following revisions guided by the assessments, the laboratory is ‘handed off’ to the regular faculty member teaching the course. Continued pre-/posttest assessment together with faculty feedback leads to additional revision. Two laboratories for first year biology have completed the cycles and are permanently implemented in the curriculum at all three participating institutions. Several additional laboratories designed for second-fourth year courses are in process.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Assessment of laboratories has included learning outcomes measured by pre-/posttest results, student focus groups and review by external review panels. These assessments are conducted by an evaluation team led by a faculty member in the UNO College of Education. Results show positive learning outcomes, very favorable assessment by students and positive reviews from expert reviewers. Faculty from expert review panels have committed to implementing some of the laboratories in their own courses.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: At this stage of the project, we have implemented and assessed multiple laboratories. For a few laboratories, we have accomplished our goal of permanent implementation into the curriculum and transfer of teaching from the project team to the regular professors in the course. For example, one laboratory has been published into a laboratory manual that is used every semester in a course enrolling an average of 400 students each year. Just at the participating institutions, our laboratories have impacted well over 1,500 students. Students who have completed our laboratories are already better prepared to accomplish bioinformatics projects. When fully implemented, we expect substantial improvement in students’ ability to solve bioinformatics problems. This addresses many of the core competencies identified by Vision and Change. These include the ability to apply the process of science, ability to use quantitative reasoning, ability to tap in to the multidisciplinary nature of science and the ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines. Our bioinformatics project has a significant faculty development component. Many biology faculty have little training in bioinformatics and are uncomfortable in the area. We find that faculty quickly come up to speed if the laboratories are taught first by an expert.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: A major barrier to institutionalizing the bioinformatics laboratories is reluctance of faculty to learn bioinformatics concepts. Our approach to address this barrier has been to have a member of the project team lead teaching of the laboratory initially. The regular instructor observes. In our experience, the regular instructor generally engages with students during the laboratory and becomes more comfortable with the exercise. Using this approach, we have ‘handed off’ the teaching to several instructors at the three participating institutions.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Our laboratories are available on the project website. We have also developed curated databases and assembled bioinformatics tools, all of which are available on the same website. We have hosted expert review panels composed of faculty from regional universities to evaluate our laboratories. These faculty have agreed to implement our laboratories in their own courses. Continued dissemination will include publications in biology education journals and presentations at biology education conferences. In addition, we have recently formed a research coordination network for developing and disseminating bioinformatics educational resources.

Acknowledgements: This work is supported by Award 1122971 from the National Science Foundation. We wish to thank members of the project and evaluation teams: Garry Duncan, Oliver McClung, Letitia Reichart, Dawn Simon, and Neal Grandgenett.