February 2010

Letter for Education Issue

Dear Dr. Petsko,

Two articles that appeared in the October issue (“A Teachable Moment” and “Student-Centered Education in Molecular Life Sciences”) have been very good motivation to share some observations. I was very fortunate to be a participant at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology-sponsored conference at Colorado College last August, centered on improving education in the molecular life sciences. As described in Neena Grover’s and Marilee Benore Parsons’ article, the meeting was incredibly informative and stimulating. Spanning three days, there was ample time to have insightful discussions with those who have been at the forefront of the drive to transform our lecture and laboratory courses. It was also highly beneficial that there were faculty from both smaller, primary undergraduate institutions as well as larger research universities, both types of schools having their own special circumstances that affect the ways in which we implement our curricula.

As a result of conversations with J. Ellis Bell, Joseph Provost and Neena Grover spanning five years, numerous articles in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education and the Journal of Chemical Education, as well as several publications by the National Research Council, I had been formulating a transformation plan for our department’s upper-division biochemistry laboratory course from a primarily methods-and-techniques format into a inquiry-based “gene-to-protein” experience. Making such a sweeping change can be a very daunting task, especially when trying to overcome the inertia of more conservative departmental colleagues. In her closing talk, Neena fervently urged us to evaluate how we are teaching our courses and to make small, subtle changes and then evaluate the efficacy of those changes to enhance our students’ educational experience.

With this advice resonating in my brain, on the flight back to Tucson, Ariz., I outlined two small projects I would introduce to our laboratory course during the upcoming semester. One project was designed to be an open-ended, inquiry-based assignment originating from interesting results the students would encounter in the early part of the semester. In the assignment, student groups would choose an experiment they would like to conduct, do the appropriate literature research on methods we had not covered in the course, design their experiments and finally carry them out with the relevant data analysis. The project would culminate in brief oral presentations by each group. The data collected in the fall semester would be passed on to the students in the spring classes, serving as a new starting point.

Two outcomes of this project are worth noting. First, several students made excellent suggestions about further experimentation that could be conducted to tie up some loose ends, and they volunteered to do the work on their own time (a rarity in my experience). Second, a young Hispanic student told me that since our department has a two-semester senior thesis requirement for a B.S. in biochemistry, she had contemplated switching majors or opting for the nonthesis B.A. throughout most of the semester. However, as a result of the work she had done on tandem mass spectrometry analysis of Escherichia coli periplasmic proteins during “the special project,” she had become very excited about scientific research and was making a concerted effort to get into a mass spec lab for her thesis project.

So, for those who are waffling about transforming their courses, I reiterate Neena’s advice: Make small, incremental changes in your courses first (a suggestion also made by Jennifer Loertscher in the December 2009 ASBMB Today concerning implementation of POGIL modules in pre-existing lecture courses), diplomatically ignore those with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, and, finally, in honor of the BCS season, “Just Do It!” You and your students will be very glad you did.

Finally, ASBMB should be very highly commended for taking a leadership role in not only advocating making substantive changes in the way we teach our undergraduates but also for its efforts to engage undergraduates in research and scientific investigation through the auspices of the Undergraduate Affiliate Network, the ΧΩΛ undergraduate honor society and encouragement of our highly motivated and talented students to fully participate at the annual meetings.

James T. Hazzard
Senior lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry
The University of Arizona

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