This fall at universities around the world, some students will engage in a two-pronged approach to learning the knowledge and skills of microbiology lab technique. They will learn the conventional way, loop and burner and tubes and plates, and they will expand their opportunity to think like a microbiologist and simulate their lab work using their computers with software developed by Dr. Gary Wilson and his partners at Intuitive Systems, Inc. The software, VirtualUnknown(TM) Microbiology, is now over a decade old, and this summer marks the end of a two year-long development program to create a new, more versatile version. Dr. Wilson’s son, Marcus Wilson, has been the Java-developer making it all happen.
The original VU Microbiology was developed with particular goals in mind: solid microbiology instruction, true-to-life simulation requiring knowledge of aseptic technique, opportunities for students to make mistakes with consequences, detailed reporting in the Virtual Lab Report of all errors in technique and judgment – all in a game-like atmosphere. Judging by the popularity of the software with allied health programs, it scores on all points. But the leaps in technology over the past ten years have necessitated parallel improvements in the software. Whereas the original product was PC-exclusively and largely stand-alone, the new version will be “platform neutral” and Web-based. Testing on Mac, Linux, and Windows have all gone well, meaning any student with any computer will soon have equal access to this tool. VirtualUnknown(TM) Microbiology Web Edition (VUWEB) will be “Micro Anywhere!” incarnate.
To make that happen, Dr. Wilson has spent the summer taking care of the content and support components, while Marcus has been polishing the look, feel, and action of the software. Several tests were replaced with updated versions. New Help files had to be created that accounted for the current state of computer skills in average students, rather than on the average computer skills of 1998. A new lab activities manual was written, entitled Micro Digital Media(TM), along with an instructor’s key. MDM gets right to the nuts and bolts of microbiology and spends its 100 pages helping students learn how lab skills are used in a health setting. There is even an exercise to help students learn how to make fancy research posters to display their work.
What’s left? The Help files are text- and graphic-centered, but will also have extensive videos still in production. And there’s extensive beta testing to come. Anticipated product release will be Spring 2012.
Welcome back! I must have piqued your curiosity if you are back to see how my third installment resolves this discussion about college students and good teaching. If you’ll remember, in episode 1, I defined the problem with teaching in the sciences and the horrible disconnect between old ways of teaching and learning, and how important to national security and prosperity such a gap represented. Our goal cannot be to weed out students in the sciences – it must be to find better ways to engage them and foster their success. In episode 2, I made my case for the source of the problem being the way technology has forever changed the planet. We often think of technology as being a wonderful thing for improving teaching. My point is this is a double-edged sword. That which is useful as a teaching tool is also responsible for the changes in students that make use of technology for teaching in old ways no better than teaching without it in old ways. The issue in teaching is not technology or no technology – it is old teaching vs. new teaching. Our approaches have to change to reach the 21st Century student.
Predator-prey relationships. If you remember the cyclic nature of these relationships, you also remember that changes in the prey population necessitate changes in the predator population to keep pace or perish. Our college world has changed irreparably, and we as college faculty can either adapt or go extinct. The obvious changes in today’s college students have not been matched by a change in our teaching styles and expectations - students (our prey) represent the first population to change and faculty (the predators) are left in a perpetual game of “catch up”. Millenial students provide the selective pressure that will dictate the direction of that natural selection.
My BIMS colleague Tom Benoit has convinced me: less is more when it comes to education. Spend your time limiting and teaching to what is truly needed, and invest more time in helping them learn to be proficient in its use. Abandon wholesale mastering and embrace effective management of information. Nobody can master the information in any science field! Just when you think you’re current, it is time for another 1000 life science journals to arrive in the mail. It is better to do a few things well than many things poorly. We can’t turn back the clock and expect students to go back to the old-school approach to education – the technology genie (and all of its ramifications) is out of the bottle. The same can be said for the information explosion in any of our main science disciplines – keeping pace with change is not something possible for small college science programs. But we can spend every semester trying to close the gap in that predator-prey curve by teaching in ways students learn, providing them with useful skills that match their abilities, and focusing on what is important to know and what we can let technology do about the rest.
The knee-jerk response to my assertion that technology is to blame for the huge chasm that has formed between the way we teach and the way students learn would be to think increasing use of technology on the professor’s part would be the way to increase motivation. Fighting fire with fire! That is not what I am saying or promoting. I believe technology can help, but the answer is not in the tools used – it is in the approach taken.
The BIMS program at McMurry was carefully constructed to take a different approach in science education, one so radical that the knee-jerk reaction is it can never work. We have every reason to believe it will. We realized success hinged on having a great lure/bait with which to capture the attention of students. We needed to “work the lure” to further draw students into becoming an active part of their “capture” as future scientists. We knew we had to reduce the distractions that would scare off our prey. Our goal was not to be great teachers, it was to have students become great learners (as Tom Benoit says “A day spent learning is a day lost of lecturing!”). As we began to solidify our approach to the degree we were constructing, we realized we were on to something. Though in its infancy, the program shows signs of taking the disenchantment and boredom so many first year college students experience in science majors and replacing it with a fun, engaging, and highly successful alternative. In Part 4, I’ll lay out our philosophy and approach that forms the foundation for McMurry’s truly innovative curriculum and program in Biomedical Science.
This past week several BIMS faculty met with other area scientists and representatives from local biotech firm Receptor Logic to discuss research collaboration and opportunities for our students.
Receptor Logic is a company led by Dr. Jon Weidanz, whose “day job” is as a professor at the TTU School of Pharmacy here in Abilene. Their work involves development and production of specific antibodies called T-cell receptor mimics (TCRm) of value immunologically. They have promise therapeutically and also open the possibility for diagnostic and environmental sensing applications. If all goes according to plan, Abilene will become a major player in the fight against contagious diseases, advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, and development of biosensors to monitor environmental quality. McMurry plans on being the major supplier of quality employees.
The emerging biotech presence in Abilene is supported by the Abilene Life Science Foundation and the Development Corporation of Abilene. Under construction is the biotech research accelerator facility – a research center expected to house up to six biotech companies and support their research and development efforts. The community has rallied around the effort by providing tax incentives. McMurry responded with creation of the BIMS degree and is moving toward articulation with a biotech certificate program being developed by a local junior college.
The subject of this meeting was how our faculty might join in the work underway at Receptor Logic, a collaboration that would enable McMurry faculty to contribute to cutting edge research and that would add some capable minds and hands to the resources available to Receptor Logic. Most exciting to us were the opportunities discussed for our students – internships, advanced courses involving commercial biotech research, job opportunities upon graduation. The degree of cooperation between groups represented is unprecedented. We have heard in the past that a BIMS graduate would have the skills desired for biotech or forensic science jobs, jobs that oftentimes have starting salaries in excess of $50,000.
We believe it would be irresponsible of us to see a quality biotech education as beginning and ending with McMurry faculty when so many resources are available in town – a quality faculty at the TTU Pharmacy School, invitations from biotech companies engaged in research & development, a supportive community that invests in biotech resources to support schools and industry. It would also be irresponsible for us to have resources on our campus that are not contributed to the effort. Joining together to become more than the sum of our parts is what will make Abilene’s emerging biotech presence flourish. McMurry is committed to giving our very best effort for the sake of our students, our faculty, our community, and our local biotech industry. Stay tuned for the excitement to come!