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Gonzaga to Join Major National Science Education Effort

Posted on December 17, 2009 in: Academics, Faculty & Staff, Feature Stories, Students

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Invites Gonzaga, 11 Other Schools to Join Science Education Alliance to Engage Students in Scientific Discovery on a National Scale

Gonzaga science faculty and students will be among hundreds of students and faculty at 35 other large universities and small colleges nationwide engaging their students in scientific discovery on a national scale. Photo by Kirk Hirota.

Gonzaga science faculty and students will be among hundreds of students and faculty at 35 other large universities and small colleges nationwide engaging their students in scientific discovery on a national scale. Photo by Kirk Hirota.

SPOKANE, Wash. – The Howard Hughes Medical Institute today announced it has invited Gonzaga University and 11 other colleges and universities to join 24 schools in the Science Education Alliance, a national experiment that aims to change the future of undergraduate science education.

Gonzaga science faculty and students will be among hundreds of students and faculty at 35 other large universities and small colleges nationwide engaging their students in scientific discovery on a national scale. HHMI created the SEA in 2007, hoping it would become a resource for science educators. Faculty participating in the SEA work together to deliver innovative science education programs and bring the excitement of doing science directly to students in a novel, collaborative way.

HHMI has committed $4 million over four years to the first Alliance program – the National Genomics Research Initiative. It is a two-part, yearlong course that enables students to make real discoveries by doing research on bacterial viruses, called phage.

“Students across the country are really talking about science and thinking about the research they are doing,” says Tuajuanda Jordan, SEA’s director. “We are helping to bring up a new generation of students who love research and want to become scientists.”

Peter J. Bruns, HHMI’s vice president for grants and special programs, said the program will translate into significant opportunities for Gonzaga science students and faculty to engage in hands-on research involving cutting-edge science.

“Beyond the opportunities for beginning students to be involved in authentic discovery, a real strength of the SEA is the partnership of the member schools,” Bruns said. “The faculty members are helping each other and the communication among them is really important. That sharing of resources and ideas is a novel and exciting development.”

Gonzaga biology Professor Nancy Staub said the news is of major significance for Gonzaga’s biology department and the University’s sciences in general.

“One of the reasons we’re excited about this opportunity is that it will enhance our efforts to recruit and retain a more diverse group of students in biology,” Staub said. “We aren’t the only ones that get attacked by viruses; bacteria suffer from viral infections too. This yearlong lab sequence focuses on isolating and sequencing the DNA of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). The phages will be isolated from local soil samples.”

Participating schools, which are chosen through national competitions, generally offer the course as a substitute for an introductory biology lab class. In the first term, beginning college students isolate phage from locally collected environmental samples. Given the diversity of these viruses, each one is almost certain to be unique, so the students get to name their newly identified life form. They then spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA. Between terms, the purified DNA is sent to the Joint Genome Institute-Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where it is sequenced. In the second term, the students receive files containing their isolated phage’s DNA sequence. The students then use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes from their phage.

Although many of Gonzaga’s biology labs have inquiry-based projects, this Phage Genomics course presents an opportunity to run a lab course built entirely around a real discovery-focused project, said Kirk Anders, associate professor of biology at Gonzaga.

“We anticipate that student interest will be high. Students in this course will become immersed in modern genomic analysis and bioinformatics, which will be excellent tools to have for their future studies,” Anders said.

Students in the SEA course say they have been inspired by the opportunity to do hands-on science research, while faculty who teach the classes say helping students embrace the creativity of real research has changed the way they look at teaching.

“One of our goals in biology is that our students learn how to solve mysteries about the natural world. This is what science is,” Anders said. “This course puts real discovery and problem-solving right up front. Our hope is that all the students who take this course will be inspired to get involved with more research later on.”

At Gonzaga, this course will run parallel to the cell biology and genetics/evolution lab courses, Anders said. “Students will have the opportunity to apply prior to registration in the spring. It will be an exceptional chance for students to contribute to a genomic research project early in their college career,” Anders said.

The program complements Gonzaga’s current grant from the HHMI; in April 2008, HHMI announced Gonzaga was among 48 of the nation’s best undergraduate institutions that will share $60 million from HHMI to help usher in a new era of science education in the United States. Gonzaga’s first-ever grant from the HHMI Undergraduate Science Education Program totaled $1.2 million and is expected to transform Gonzaga’s science programs and nearly triple research opportunities for undergraduates.

Melinda Harrison, a chemistry professor at Cabrini College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Radnor, Pa., said the course has been well received at Cabrini, which began teaching it in fall 2009.

“It wasn’t even the end of the semester and the students were working independently, doing things on their own. I don’t normally see that in my freshman chemistry labs,” said Harrison. “What’s really cool about it is there are endless possibilities. There is not one outcome that everyone has to get.”

Faculty excitement in the program is borne out by data collected by the first 12 schools that joined the SEA in 2008-2009, the program’s first full year; participants in the SEA course were more likely to complete the class than students in other labs for introductory biology students. Only 2-to-5 percent of students dropped out compared to school-wide averages of 14 percent. Additionally, the SEA students did better in the introductory biology classes by an average of six (of 100) points possible compared to other students not taking the SEA course. Those gains held up across the board, no matter whether the students were honors or at-risk, biology majors or those who have not yet declared a major.

Gonzaga and the other 11 new SEA colleges and universities chosen for the program through a competitive application process will begin offering the course in fall 2010. HHMI provides research and laboratory materials along with support from Jordan and a dedicated HHMI staff.

Four other colleges will join the SEA as associate members and will attend training sessions that will allow them to implement this research experience in laboratory classes on their campuses.

Queensborough Community College of the City College of New York system will be the first community college in the country to become an associate member of the Alliance. Queensborough was initially attracted to the SEA project because it is so different from traditional lab courses. “The thing that was most appealing to me was that our students will participate in a nationwide authentic research project,” said Queensborough biology Professor Patricia Schneider. “Working with faculty from campuses all over the country will be a real source of support and inspiration.”

That support network is an important part of the Alliance, Bruns says, noting the SEA has set up a buddy system this current academic year to match new schools with those that had already been through the program. The new faculty say it is valuable to be able to turn to professors who have taught the class with questions about everything from troubleshooting a problem with their phage preparations to using bioinformatics tools. There is also an active Web site that allows faculty members and students to share questions and ideas, successes and setbacks.

“The faculty are modifying the program as they go to make the lab instructions better and lower the materials costs,” Bruns says. “Some of the protocols are different now, not because we changed them but because the participants did.”

Lehigh University biology Professor Vassie Ware tries to foster a similarly supportive atmosphere among students in her SEA class and the biology department, which offered the SEA course for the first time in fall 2009. For example, the students received help from graduate students and faculty to take a picture of their phage using an electron microscope. “That may have been the most exciting thing for the students, to see the phage that they had been working on for months,” Ware says. “Their excitement has permeated the entire department.”

The newly selected participants in SEA’s National Genomics Research Initiative are as follows:

Baylor University, Waco, Texas
Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa.
Culver-Stockton College, Canton, Mo.
Gonzaga University, Spokane, Wash.
Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Ala.
Loyola-Marymount University, Los Angeles
North Carolina Central University, Durham, N.C.
Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.
U. of Alabama-Birmingham
University of Texas-El Paso
University of Wisconsin-River Falls
Virginia Commonwealth U., Richmond, Va.

Brooklyn College, N.Y.
College of Charleston, Charleston, S.C.
Queensborough Community College, New York City
University of California-Davis, Davis, Calif.

For more information, please contact Professor Staub at (509) 313-6636 or Professor Anders at 313-5933.

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