In BIMS 1101 Unicellular Organisms Lab, Dr. Benoit takes students through an amazing tour of the unseen world, one filled with bacteria and protozoa and algae and yeast. The course teaches basic cell biology and the diversity that exists among the smallest forms of life. As a way of demonstrating the metabolic diversity of bacteria, all students create Winogradsky columns by filling Falcon flasks with diatomaceous earth, a variety of chemicals, and some water drawn from pond sludge (see photo). These are the students’ pets, cared for and tended to by the students. Dr. B encourages students to drop by the lab regularly to visit their pets and to enjoy their journey to maturation. At the end of the semester, students are free to take them home where they can continue to mature and change for many years.
The preparation begins white usually, but chemical changes caused by a variety of bacterial turn the many minerals present into a technicolor show. A good balance of chemicals and diversity of bacteria can result in reds and greens and blacks and yellows and purples as one species of bacteria after another transforms the minerals into colorful compounds. It is the microbial equivalent of a garden filled with diverse plants.
As educational as the Winogradsky column is, the fun take on the project by Dr. Benoit demonstrates an important component of science at McMurry – if it isn’t fun, something is wrong!
BIMS 1300 is a bit of an unusual course to start the BIMS major out on. The title is “Introduction to Scientific Research”, and yet we spend the majority of our time playing and designing games, with only limited time spent discussing the scientific method, the structure of a scientific paper, and the importance of ethical and moral behavior in the sciences. So it might come as a shock that one of the key features of the final exam is the analysis of a scientific paper taken from the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.
All semester long, I have been telling the 33 students in the class (mostly freshmen) that our approach to learning how scientific research is conducted is taken from “The Karate Kid” – we do things seemingly unrelated to science to learn about science. So we played games to learn about variable and constants, how to use deductive reasoning to isolate variables in order to win the game. The mid-term exam included a simple Sudoku! We read excerpts from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” to learn about observation and controlled experimental design. I give them an article called “Delusions of Gender” that is a great example of how inductive reasoning can go awry if taken beyond the limits of logic. We ran through examples of research misconduct and discussed the high costs of research and played “The Lab” at the NIH-ORI website.
And their final exam included evaluation of a scientific paper. They told me which paragraphs fit into each part of an IMRAD format paper. They evaluated logic used in the Results and Discussion section. They identified variables and constants in the table and figure. Then, on page two of the exam they looked at a flawed study, pointed out the mistakes and designed a better approach. And they explained how the games their groups created use these same methods and approaches and skills.
How did they do? As students in the course have done over the past four years, they were able to show me they “get it” about how we use the tools of science on a daily basis as we go about our decision-filled lives. And I am certain the experience of this class will help our students approach their sophomore classes, including organic chemistry, genetics, and human physiology from a more critical and thoughtful perspective.
So those who know about the BIMS program fall into two camps – those who “get it” – understand our philosophy and approach to education – and those who “don’t get it” - can’t see how our approach can possibly create an educated and skilled graduate. I thought I’d take some time this summer to explain our guiding principles and how they provide the context for why we do what we do and why we believe the outcome is superior to that obtained by an historic and typical college biology program.
For some perspective on how our program differs from the expected college biology degree program, we invite you to review our “About BIMS” page and the program structure found on the “Downloads” page. You will see that our approach is skills-based, experience-laden, and “just-in-time” rather than “just-in-case” as to content. In our archives for this page are articles written concerning the way technology has forever changed education – content, delivery, and expectations – and why we believe our approach works in concert with “the new student” rather than in opposition. In our labs we approach teaching by engaging students in research, expecting them to apply what they learn to solve real problems. Student and faculty engage in a master and apprentice relationship to learn and explore together. Education should be a joint effort, not a battle of wills between student and faculty. And so with this in mind, I’d like to explore in greater depth some of the guiding principles for how projects are selected for students to work on as they learn and prepare for a life of productive and rewarding employment.
In this first installment, we’ll look at the first guiding principle:
“Good enough isn’t good enough”.
We live in a society where some believe half the effort is “just showing up”. We are in many ways, as Francis Schaeffer states, “addicted to mediocrity”. Our society often equates casual familiarity with expertise, sort of like taking a tour of Europe and professing to be an expert on the area. That mindset permeates incoming college students, who too often believe a desire to be a doctor or scientist trumps the need for hard work, specific training, and sweat equity.
BIMS is fighting that tendency by pushing our students to do more than “show up”. We expect their very best effort to become citizens of science, to have a working knowledge and passion for learning that translates into excellence and proficiency. To equip our students for significance in science, we can expect nothing less. That is why our program is more than facts and dates and exposure to wetlab experience. It is experience-laden, research-rich, content in context for the purpose of building excitement and excellence in our next generation of world-changers.