We are nearing the end of the spring semester at McMurry, and every course is experiencing the “crunch” that comes from too much left to do and to little time left for its accomplishment. The BIMS program being in its infancy, we have had to settle for minor successes in most every class. Sorting through the problems and issues associated with implementing a new approach to teaching has left us a bit disappointed while also very encouraged.
The Chlamydomonas races our freshman students were working on will have to be modified somewhat. Isolation of the organisms from natural sources, culturing them, their purification, and selection of the fastest strains was not as straightforward as we’d hoped. Too much light here, too few nutrients there, and we end up refocusing the course on how best to grow the “wee beasties”. The final projects in Microbiology have been compacted into only two weeks due to overruns in previous experiments done by the class (the growth curve experiment previously reported, among them). No doubt there will be some excellent projects still (one survey of produce items for Salmonella shows some promising early results, and another focused on how tobacco products influence bacterial growth and mutation looks to be very well designed). The cancer research being done in the senior capstone course has been toned down a bit due to problems with culturing the cancer cells (as chronicled previously). As a result, the DNA sequencing that was planned may now be modified into a less ambitious project.
Are we disappointed? Yes. Are we discouraged? No. Like research itself, the establishment of a new program or protocol is frequently a learning experience where adaptations and modifications are the norm. In spite of the setbacks, much is being learned. Faculty are learning our strengths and limitations and are sure this time next year the results we report will be exciting and interesting. Students have experienced the “high” that comes from putting ideas to the test to find truth about nature. More than one has expressed greater excitement and interest in research as a future. As one put it, “If you don’t stop making science so much fun, I may decide I don’t want to go to medical school afterall!”
The greatest discovery of all this semester has been that our discovery-based approach in a research-rich and skills-laden environment works to engage students and deliver courses effectively to eager and willing and excited students. We are encouraged about the future of the program and its impact on our students.
This spring, Dr. Tom Benoit is teaching BIMS 1101 Unicellular Organisms Lab. It is a standalone lab that accompanies the BIOL 1301 Unicellular Organisms Lecture; required for Biomedical Science majors but elective for everyone else. In its first time taught, the class has become a roaring hit with BIMS students who enjoy the liberty of designing and conducting experiments, recognize the breadth of skills being learned, and appreciate the practical approach to applying knowledge in an experimental setting.
This lab features a “tourist’s view” of the world of one-celled critters. The course for freshmen started with an introduction to bacteria - students building Winogradsky columns and learning aseptic technique and staining procedures. From there, students isolated and observed fungi and moved on to protists. Though many freshman courses show passing interest in one or two of these organisms, it is a rare course that is so completely devoted to their biology. In BIMS 1101, fundamentals of prokaryotes, fungi, and protists – their cell structure and physiology, taxonomy, and classification – all take center stage under one roof.
Students love the research-rich approach and hands-on work, due in no small part to Dr. Benoit. He has divided the class into research teams to conduct experiments, with the prep work of making media and solutions being part of their effort. As with other BIMS courses, skills build upon skills. All that has been learned will be put to the test when research teams undertake their final project – the isolation and selection of the fastest Chlamydomonas cultures they can find. The semester’s main event will be held at the end of April: Chlamy races, with the winning team being crowned Checkered Flag-ella Champions 2009. Stay tuned for updates and the outcome!