In collaboration with Dr. Marsh from Michigan State University’s Microbiology and Molecular Genetics program I have developed an advanced research option for his Introductory Microbiology laboratory course.
Previously, all students in the course proceed through an isolation procedure from various soil sources around Michigan State’s expansive campus. These sites range from some of our well-tended gardens, the heavy-metal contaminated soil surrounding our historic rock (AKA “THE Rock”), the flood plains surrounding the Red Cedar River, and even bioreactors for the degradation of the manure from our cattle and porcine stock. While students proceed to examine the phylogeny and physiology of the organisms from these sites, little is done to connect their lifestyles and properties to their isolation sites. Thus, the majority of students reach a sufficient yet rather shallow understanding of their isolates.
While, as in most courses, the majority of students are fine with such a basic understanding, some students have always desired more. Yet, with the current setup of the course, a deeper understanding was unattainable. Why do we see different populations at each site? Could there be deeper similarities or differences between the sites that we cannot see with only phylogenetics and physiological tests? Are the same isolates (based on 16S sequencing) from different sites truly the same isolate? So many interesting questions that we were simply unable to answer.
Here’s where the magic started. Dr. Marsh was somehow able to convince our ever-generous departmental chair, Dr. Walter Esselman, to provide substantial additional funding to permit the development of an advanced-track within the MMG 302 course during the spring semester of 2012-2013. Concurrently with this fantastic news I had decided without-a-doubt that teaching was for me and continued the pursuit of improving my teaching skills (don’t get me started on the incompetencies of training in the sciences…). The Certificate in College Teaching at MSU (brought to you by the College of Natural Science) requires a “Mentored Teaching Experience” in which the trainee (myself) undergoes a semester-long project with a senior teaching faculty (Dr. Marsh). So, the stars had aligned…now how do we move on from here?
Dr. Marsh had the idea (based on previous results) that since we typically see an assorted variety of of Psuedomonads come back from student isolations, perhaps these organisms would make a solid focus for our research option students. Our initial design was to permit students (in their regularly scheduled lab time) to plate on selective media which will up the number of Pseudomonads present and kill off almost everything else. These isolates could come from a few different sites including the gardens, floodplain, and the bioreactors. As most livestock is raised in the presence of antibiotics our first task for the students was to assess the antibiotic sensitivities of their isolates to a slew of different compounds. Next, we would direct them to examine (using genomic DNA preparations and PCR) the prevalence of antibiotic resistance, pathogenicity, and other genes (such as levulinic acid degradation studies here at MSU by Dr. Bagdasarian) in their isolates. We hoped that our students would see some sites with increased amounts of these factors and be able to draw conclusions from there. We decided this was a reasonable amount of work for our first go at a research option and that it would provide our students with a decent story to regale their parents of upon their return home for the summer.
So, my first lesson in curriculum development is that proper planning necessitates a balance of being both under- and overzealous. While the students signed up knowing the research option would be additional work, some of their normally scheduled lab periods were far too busy with the addition of the research option material. Lesson #2: simply because you can easily complete a task within the designated time does not mean the students can. Next time the research option is provided as an option I will host a “free period” in which any research option student can come and finish up materials they were unable to finish during their normal class period.
Regardless of this fact, we were able to accomplish a large amount of the materials that we had hoped to. Dr. Marsh and I hosted interactive nighttime labs where the students successfully assessed the antibiotic sensitivities of their isolates, prepared genomic DNA, and performed PCR analysis to determine whether their isolates contained two separate pathogenicity genes. While we did not get through all of the material we had hoped to, it was a successful first attempt.
I am currently awaiting the completion of the student experiments and excited to see the depth of knowledge the students demonstrate when it comes to analyzing their data. I plan on assisting Dr. Marsh again in the following semesters with similar projects to gain experience and facilitate the development of what I deem to be a valuable asset to students interested in life in the sciences.
Assessments of whether this was success were collected as laboratory reports and the analysis even resulted in a poster presentation. These reports were a great success and most (not all, sadly enough) of the students were able to draw far deeper conclusions about their isolates than possible in the regular class section. Examples of the assessments, in addition to a copy of the poster presentation, were compiled by Dr. Marsh and myself into a report to the dean. These are available upon request and in brief here. These reports contain student names and data that I would be remiss to release openly.