When ‘I don’t know’ is the right answer

Published August 08 2016

“Professor, you have to see this!” Kim exclaimed, visibly excited. “My producer changed from Gram positive to negative and has this pretty green color to it!”

Oh, the joys of teachable moments! This was my opening to introduce Kim to things learned through years of grad school and postdoctoral training: the scientist’s discipline not to believe in anything exciting until proven again and again, to double-check everything, and to assume errors before breakthroughs.

Except that I was standing in an undergraduate classroom, in a microbiology laboratory course with students heading to popular allied health careers, such as nursing. Students in such courses seldom think about research, especially not at colleges like mine, where most students are nontraditional like Kim (not her name), who worked during the day as a licensed vocational nurse and was planning to apply to a nursing program to get her bachelor’s degree. Most of the students in my class were in their late 20s or early 30s, worked and had families, and many were veterans.

They are, in many ways, dream students: mature, focused and disciplined. On the other hand, they know what they want (good grades) and do not have a lot of patience with uncertainty in the classroom.

But uncertainty was what I offered them the first day of class when I announced that, besides learning the basic techniques of a microbiology laboratory, they would also do their own research: trying to find antibiotic-producing bacteria in the soil from their backyard or neighborhood.

“Go and find some dirt!” I exclaimed, handing them 50-milliliter tubes and spatulas.

They returned the next period with soil in their tubes sampled from a variety of locations, ranging from a basil plant pot to the soil near a cactus in Camp Pendleton Marine Base.

They did not know what to expect. In all honesty, I did not know what to expect.

This course, the Small World Initiative, is a brainchild of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor Jo Handelsman and her close collaborators at Yale University. It combines the urgency of the antibiotic crisis (acutely felt as I write this due to the appearance on American soil of the dreaded colistin-resistant E.coli) with a new way to engage students in scientific research (see box).

I learned about the SWI in 2013 through a call for applicants to participate in the training workshop at Yale only days before the deadline. My colleague Huda Makhluf and I scrambled to make the deadline, and a few weeks later we learned that the National University team had been selected as one of the pilot partners to come to New Haven.

In July 2013 I spent a crazy and inspiring week at Yale with 23 other instructors, learning not only the lab protocols and techniques but also the pedagogic foundations of scientific teaching. We picked and patched colonies from smelly plates, got excited about inhibition zones, eagerly anticipated the PCR results, and returned to our home institutions with the mission to implement the SWI.

Most (if not all) institutions that implemented the SWI in that first round were very different from Yale: small colleges, nontraditional universities and community colleges whose material resources and student populations do not compare to those of Yale. Upon returning to our home institutions, we worked to adapt the SWI’s framework to our courses and school styles, to pass the hurdles of institutional review board applications, and to figure out the logistics of lab activities.

Nursing students get exposure to microbiology through the Small World Initiative’s projects. PHOTO PROVIDED BY BARRAL

Originally a biochemist who over the years has moved toward cell and molecular biology, I picked up microbiology first through basic techniques in the lab and then as I taught classes. By 2013, I was fairly comfortable handling the usual suspects from E.coli to P. aeruginosa (and its characteristic green sheen, which was invading Kim’s plate), but soil microbiology was a different monster. When students asked me what was this or that colony sprouting up on their plates, it was liberating to answer, “I don’t know,” followed by “Let’s find out!”

As the SWI has expanded (currently there are more than 135 pilot partners at 108 schools, from R1 research universities to community colleges, home and abroad), one aspect remains the same: the SWI improves the class environment.

We can talk about “student project ownership” and “engagement,” but in plain English, teaching and learning using the SWI is just more fun. With the SWI, there are no right or wrong results, reflecting what research is like.

Instead of the professor handing out good and bad verdicts (in the form of grades), I became more like a PI advising students. If I do not know the answer to their question, I tell them and share my ideas about how to move forward. Often students surprise me with their immaculate lab techniques and unconventional ideas.

Errors are handled as learning experiences, not a reason for a failing grade. When Kim showed me her green plate, I advised her to go back to a previous plate and compare morphology and Gram stain results. She arrived at the conclusion that she had a contamination issue and, as a result, probably learned the importance of aseptic technique and research discipline.

Looking for antibiotic producers in the soil as a classroom project is not unique to the SWI. Unique aspects of the SWI include its modular and flexible nature as well as its emphasis on the research experience and assessment.

The SWI has been adapted to microbiology, general biology, and cellular and molecular biology courses. While 16S rRNA PCR amplification and sequencing of isolates are part of the SWI curriculum, instructors have the option to add more molecular biology. Likewise, the organic extraction of the isolated antibiotic producer and extract activity testing can be expanded to include more advanced chemical and biochemical analysis. In fact, the SWI is establishing a chemical discovery hub to screen and characterize the extracts coming from SWI classes.

At the 2014 American Society of Microbiology General Meeting in Boston, a group of SWI students proudly exhibited their results as part of the Presidential Forum. Kim was there, beaming as she explained the characteristics of her Bacillus, which she had narrowed down to three possible candidates based on PCR and biochemical techniques.

Since that inaugural poster symposium, SWI students have been presenting their results at many national and international events, including the 2016 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology meeting.

SWI instructors, in turn, have been researching the effectiveness of the course, showing that the SWI’s approach improves critical thinking and student test scores (see box). The possibility of doing research even at teaching-oriented institutions is yet another reward of adopting the SWI.


Visit Small World Initiative to learn more about the program.See this article by Joseph P. Caruso and co-authors to learn more aboutstudent outcomes.

While one of the goals of the SWI is to increase the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, I have come to appreciate its broader impact on education. Through the SWI, whether they pursue STEM degrees or not, students have an invaluable opportunity to learn firsthand the challenges and excitement of science at every stage of the process, from sample gathering to the public presentation of research.

Our society needs citizens who know and appreciate science, and the world needs more awareness of the antibiotic crisis.

Everybody wins!

Ana Maria Barral Ana Maria Barral is an assistant professorat National University’s Costa Mesa, California, campus. Follow her on Twitter.