In Micro, we teach techniques through student projects. Early in the semester we studied Gram negative rods from foods to learn the basics of aseptic technique, pipetting and viable counts via pour plates, staining, microscopy, selective media, bacterial testing and identification, etc. Our most recent project needed to center on Gram positive cocci, so our four groups in lab chose where to do their sampling. We stayed away from places dangerous bacteria might be easily encountered, and then we sampled like crazy to see what we might recover and identify. Whether credit cards or cell phones or feet or fingertips, the groups all found Gram positive cocci and began their characterization. The result was nearly 40 unique isolates for us to investigate.
Identifying bacteria can be a long, laborious and expensive process. My students do some basic tests to get a feel for how the process is done. But we never go test-by-test, day-by-day to definitively identify our isolates. Instead, we use BD-BBL Crystal (R) Rapid ID panels. Students inoculate the panels with their culture, snap them closed, and then toss them in the incubator overnight. For Gram positive cocci, we use the GP panels, good for a wide range of cocci and bacilli. Each panel is designed to give answers for 30 separate tests useful for identification. We have manual readers that students can use to interpret test results (based on color charts provided). But when we renovated labs a few years back we built into the budget an automated panel reader that interfaces with a computer and provides two important functions: reading all 30 tests and interpreting their results to generate an identification. It was well worth the expense.
Today I came in and read results for over 1000 biochemical tests and identified over 30 bacteria in less than half an hour. When my students come in Tuesday, they will be able to add that information to their lab reports (research posters) and analyze that information to complete their posters. Sure beats having to make the media for those tests and wash the sterilized remnants later!
Recently, three BIMS majors found out they will receive Bloomer and Beasley Research Fellowships for the coming year. All three are students of Dr. Gary Wilson and will be pursuing different projects investigating Bacillus thuringiensis spore properties as they pursue Honors research and write their Honors theses in the next year.
The Charles and Lisa Bloomer Research Fellowship is awarded to support research of promising students in the School of Natural and Computational Science (SNCS). This initiative of the Science and Math Advisory Board (SMAB) provides a research stipend for students as they work closely with McMurry faculty on a research project. Dr. Bloomer is a successful oral surgeon in Abilene who has generously and regularly supported the sciences at his alma mater. The biennial picnic the Bloomers host for SMAB members and SNCS faculty is a popular event building relationships and communicating the vision each holds for McMurry’s science future. The Beasley Research Fellowship is a new program supporting student research in the biological sciences. McMurry’s science alumni are spearheading an effort to create an endowment in memory of Dr. Clark Beasley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus from the Department of Biology who died this past summer. This represents the first year this fellowship has been awarded.
Recipients of this year’s awards are Heather Rawls, Miranda Nguyen, and Nicole McGunegle. Their projects will study wild type and genetically-engineered strains of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and Bacillus cereus (Bc) grown in rich and poor media. Bt is a spore-former that produces an insecticidal toxin at the time of sporulation. Bc is a commonly encountered and well-studied spore-former closely related to Bt but generally harmless. The genetically-engineered strains include Bt strains that do not form crystals and Bc strains that have been engineered to produce Bt crystals. One project will look at how the presence or absence of the crystal in rich and poor media influences spore and crystal size and toxicity. A second project will look at how growth conditions impact spore dormancy and the process of activation and germination. It is possible an undiscovered variation of quorum sensing might be involved. The third project will explore UV and chemical resistance of wild type and genetically-engineered strains produced in rich and poor media. All projects fit the criteria for BIMS research: a complete project doable in a short time frame, certain discovery no matter the experimental outcome, publishable work.
Stay tuned for updates on how this work is progressing!
It is easy to start up a program and think the work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth! Good science programs are always trying new things, evaluating, gathering info from the workforce, talking to graduates now in professional schools, etc. Good programs are on a never-ending quest for program improvement.
Where does the information come from to drive adjustments? At McMurry, all academic departments undergo annual assessment of their programs. We are given the liberty to select what aspect of our program to evaluate in a given year. Some programs evaluate what they are good at so they can check off the box saying they are successful. Biology at McMurry takes a different tack. We see assessment as an opportunity to uncover our weaknesses so we might make adjustments to strengthen our program for the benefit of future students. In the past, this led to the creation of the BIMS degree and Life Sciences degree to complement the Biology degree. Our approach to assessment is discovery of information to guide ongoing program improvement.
So what does Biology use to help measure program quality and success. We use internal and external measures. Internally, we use a diagnostic exam taken during the Junior year to see how well our lower-level courses are performing to prepare our students for upper level work. For BIMS majors, this is accomplished in BIMS 4000 Junior exam, a degree requirement. The course carries no load credit, and features an online exam created in-house that can be taken as often as desired until an acceptable score is achieved. The feedback is invaluable! If we find an abundance of missed questions in a particular area, we know we have a course we need to work on. We also have an internal measure of quality based on the students’ capstone research projects. This senior project and resulting research poster are very telling in how well a student can “go deep” integrating the breadth of their coursework to guide them. Is this student ready to enter work or research or professional school with a toolkit and the experience to do more than just talk about their discipline?
We also use external measures. Students take the ETS Major Field Test in Biology in the BIMS 4000 course. This gives us valuable information about how our students compare with those from hundreds of other Biology programs around the nation, both in their composite scores for biology knowledge in general, and in the subscore areas appropriate to their degree program. Our seniors also take the Collegiate Learning Assessment exam to measure growth of writing and reasoning skills over their four years of college. Also nationally-normed, this provides additional confirmation of the quality of their education in comparison with students from across the nation in a variety of college majors. And finally, we look at the success of our students in using their degree to further their careers – entry into a science-centered job, acceptance into a science graduate program, or acceptance into a professional school program. Their success beyond McMurry and the feedback they provide helps us emphasize what is important and eliminated wasted effort for future students aspiring to similar careers.
How intentional is your science department in assessing its quality?