Well, a surprise for this year is the first edition of the McMurry Fantasy Microbiology League competition for high school students. Last spring, I met with two of the specialists at the Region 14 Education Service Center to discuss my lament that there is no regional science fair for the students in the 44 school districts of our area (For those from outside Texas, our state is divided into regions and a service center is provided for each region to facilitate enrichment and support for public education). In our conversation, we came up with the idea of providing an alternate enrichment opportunity based on a software simulation used for teaching microbiology. What if we set up a fantasy league of teams composed of high school students who competed to identify simulated bacteria? What if we came up with some amazing prizes to give to competitors and their teachers/coaches and their schools? We are proud to announce that this is officially a “go” and teams will be able to sign up later this month to represent their schools and win big prizes.
Intuitive Systems Inc. agreed to provide the software for the competition. VirtualUnknown(TM) Microbiology (VUMIE) is used in colleges, nursing schools, and even dental and medical programs around the world to provide students with a reasonable substitute for working with bacteria in a wet lab to allow for practice in developing microbiology skills. Fantasy Microbiology League competitors will get unknown bacteria weekly and will work to submit an ID that is fast, accurate, and efficient. Points are earned for these three premiums and lost when they are not achieved. Each week, a team plays defense by prohibiting the use of a test of their choosing by their opponent. And each week, The Commissioner will announce a “Hail Mary” twist that will earn bonus points if successfully completed. Winners from head-to-head competition will advance to the playoffs along with wildcard teams based on total points earned. The VUMIE Bowl will be held on McMurry’s campus on February 10, 2017. Prizes will include scholarships for winners, GoPro cameras/Fitbits and other prizes for final teams and coaches, scientific equipment and the VUMIE trophy for the winning school, and plenty of Swag for all participants. Thank you sponsors for making this happen!
I tell my students all the time, if your science classes aren’t fun, something’s wrong. The subject matter is fascinating and exciting and awe-inspiring. And if we are clever in how we approach it, we can make it more “game” than “work”. Students in this competition will learn valuable lessons about aseptic technique, critical reasoning in choosing tests and interpreting results, and will see how being careful and thoughtful and precise in their work can lead to big rewards. But I’ll bet the way they describe it all is “fun”.
When Angelo Falcon chose his water source for the first project in BIOL 3410 Microbiology lab, he had little idea that it would bring to light an issue being discussed in Abilene City Hall. The class was charged with finding various sources of ground water and surface water to test for the numbers and types of bacteria present. Angelo sampled water from a man-made waterfall downtown, while others in the class tested streams and lakes and ponds and wells in and around Abilene. Testing included a standard MPN (most probable number) assay, followed by isolation and purification of a Gram negative bacterium, characterization of its colony morphology and staining characteristics, and biochemical testing to provide hints at its identity. The project culminated in confirming the identifications of isolates using BD-BBL Crystal(R) E/NF panels for rapid identification of enteric and non-fermenting Gram negative rods. Angelo’s isolate came back as Enterobacter cloacae, and a little snooping revealed this to be a microbe frequently associated with sewage and soil. A conversation with people associated with the waterfall revealed the water source to be a shallow well tapping into an aquifer found under much of northern Abilene.
And that is things began to add up. In early September, Abilene’s City Council dealt with the issue of shallow ground water in northern Abilene and its unsanitary condition by issuing a warning to residents with wells into this water source – do not drink the water, do not use the water for irrigating vegetables, do not allow pets or livestock to drink the water. Angelo can testify to the presence of nasty bacteria in the water. Add to Angelo’s work confirming evidence from Amanda Carter, a classmate who tested water from her father’s north-side well, and you have every reason to believe City Council made the right decision.
Its nice when what you are doing in the lab to develop basic skills has a purpose and relevance to society.
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.