No matter the niche field a scientist pursues, there is one aspect of almost all career paths that scientists have in common: teaching. Whether lecturing a quorum of undergraduates about bacterial genetics, mentoring a research fellow as they learn the lab protocols, or presenting an invited lecture to a group of established scientists, one must consider how to present information in an understandable and absorbable manner. The American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Education (ASMCUE) is the annual forum for science educators to discuss learning objectives, active learning exercises, and the best applications for new technologies. This year’s meeting, held July 21-24 in North Bethesda, Maryland, focused on presenting information in many styles, with an emphasis on learning by doing. Other major conference themes included assessment methods and primary literature use in the classroom.
CUREing students of repetitive lab exercises
Hands-on labs and lab courses are a natural environment for students to learn through experience, but the types of experiences students acquire are changing. Jay Labov of the National Academies of Sciences presented a session on integrating discovery-based research into the undergraduate curriculum. Labov suggests lab courses should be a place of experimentation, where undergraduates participate in true discovery research instead of a prefabricated lab experience. Course-based research experiences, or CUREs, expose students to real research (and the risk of failed experiments) early in their careers and may be a more accessible starting point for students without a strong science background. Although these course types are less standardized due to the nature of different research projects and implementations, CUREs have higher student and teacher enthusiasm (compare grading 25 nearly identical reports to 25 nearly unique reports), and studies are beginning to show that genuine research experiences lead to better student retention rates.
Incorporating these research experiences into courses is important, but so is a systematic analysis of what students should be learning from these experiences. Paula Soneral of Bethel University hosted a session in which instructors detailed the processes they had taken to design and implement CUREs into the scientific curriculum. Deciding learning outcomes and discovery milestones will determine both the experimental structure and subsequent student assessments, which she walked participants through using their own CURE ideas. All lab courses and research experiences should emphasize safety, as Jeffrey Byrd presented in a session on safety assessment and instruction for lab practices. Byrd, faculty at St. Mary's College of Maryland, is also the Safety Editor for the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.
In addition to discussing CURE course assessment, Sara Brownell of Arizona State University addressed ethical issues surrounding this type of course. For example, students who pay tuition may be gaining similar experiences to student researchers who earn money through work-study programs, setting up conflicts between students. The relationship between the CURE research projects and the instructor’s research projects can also cause conflicts of interest, which are important to disclose and resolve, if possible. Imagining possible issues before they arise can help prevent disputes and ultimately add to a better student experience.
Primary literature as primary learning tools
Just as CUREs and similarly run programs are designed to give students a taste of authentic research experience, reading primary literature is one way for students to get a taste of research communication. Primary literature has been used in upper-level courses for years, but several presentations concentrated on primary literature for introductory microbiology or biology students. A session led by Amy Briggs of Beloit College covered the use of primary literature to introductory biology courses, which often require textbooks but can be complemented by primary literature. She illustrated with examples from her own experiences, in which students compared news articles with the initial scientific article, an exercise designed to stress the role of responsible journalism in scientific communication. Discussing a table or data without explanatory text can also inspire students to think creatively and apply textbook concepts in their analyses.
Nancy Boury of Iowa State University addressed the challenge of holding a journal club with over one hundred students, as many state colleges and public universities have in their introductory microbiology courses. Using session participants as prospective students (one of many active learning techniques held at ASMCUE), the session held a brief journal club in a lecture hall setting, demonstrating the challenges of full student involvement in this environment. Large lectures can benefit from primary literature analyses, but the interactions should to be tailored to the setting.
Taking concept inventories of student learning
Concept Inventories are a student assessment tool gaining popularity among faculty. Concept inventories (CI) are multiple-choice assessments that rigorously probe student understanding, using criterion-referenced tests around specific concepts. Three validated CI developed by faculty from around the country for microbiology-related topics (Microbiology in Health Sciences CI, General Microbiology CI, and Host Pathogen CI) were presented, with discussion centered around their use to address gaps in student knowledge and student misconceptions. The session participants used these CI as examples to create their own, based on previously collected student assessments. Student assessments are used to generate distractors – choices on a multiple-choice question that are common wrong answers. This helps to differentiate students who fully comprehend a topic from those with fuzzy comprehension, as well as pinpoint where the gaps or misunderstandings may lie.
The small sample of sessions described here also illustrate an overarching theme of ASMCUE this year: the joy of learning. It was clear that all conference goers attended the conference because of a deep-instilled love of learning, which they sought to share in a variety of ways. Kelly Gull and ASM staff had fun promoting Mikey the Microbe for president (with Gull acting as Mikey’s security, right). As part of the ArtWalk, Mark Martin of the University of Puget Sound brought bioluminescent bacteria for participants to paint glow-in-the-dark plate. The Federal Department of Agriculture's Eric Brown shared his passion for food safety in a plenary lecture on whole-genome sequencing technologies. After four intense days, conference attendees who had traveled from across the United States (and across the world!) to share their best teaching tips and tools returned, inspired, to prepare for the rapidly approaching school year.
Did you attend a great session at ASMCUE? Share it in the comments! Wish you had been able to attend ASMCUE? Have a great teaching technique to share with your fellow educators? The 2017 meeting is already scheduled for July 27-30 for Denver, Colorado – get your proposals in by October 15th!
-- Julie Wolf
Photo credits: Pearly Kate Photography