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Biology Curriculum for the Millennial Student at UPR-Río Piedras

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Michelle Borrero, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Puerto Rico- Río Piedras Campus

Introduction: The BIO2010 report

The BIO2010 report was issued in 2002 by the US National Academy of Sciences as an initiative of the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The report pointed out a disjunction between the quantitative skills needed for modern biological sciences and the traditional undergraduate education of current biology students. The report has as one of its goals the identification of basic skills and concepts of mathematics, chemistry, physics, computer science, and engineering that are needed for life science students. This need arises from the interdisciplinary approaches that are required to answer biomedical questions through research. “The connection between the biological sciences and the physical sciences, mathematics and computer science are rapidly becoming deeper and more extensive” i.

The challenge to educators is to transform the biology undergraduate curriculum into one that better represents how research is done in the biological sciences in the new millennium. Explicitly, we need to transform the current undergraduate curriculum, which presents all the natural sciences and mathematics as separate and disconnected entities, into one where all the disciplines are integrated in order to understand biological phenomena. Furthermore, changes in pedagogy are needed, to move from teaching facts to teaching according to principles that enhance learning ii.

But, how do we achieve this? Our task is to adapt suggestions given in the report and make them pertinent to the specific needs and resources that we have in our campus.

The Biology Department at the University of
Puerto Rico- Río Piedras Campus

Students performing protein structure analysis using RasMol in the Molecular Biotechnology Laboratory

The University of Puerto Rico -Río Piedras campus is the oldest, largest and most diverse of the UPR system. It features the most extensive research and library resources and supports the broadest academic offering. It is recognized as the top-rated center for higher education in Puerto Rico with an enrollment of approximately 22,000 students. The Biology Department is part of the College of Natural Sciences. The College offers a BS degree in Chemistry, Environmental Sciences, General Sciences, Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Sciences. It also offers MS degrees in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics; and the PhD in Biology, Chemistry, Chemical-Physics, and Mathematics. The College’s undergraduate student body has over 2000 students; approximately 50% of them Biology majors.

Strategies implemented at UPR- Río Piedras to
comply with the BIO2010 report
Reading the BIO2010 report motivates one to design and implement a new interdisciplinary curriculum for Biology majors. Nevertheless, this may not always be a feasible or a reasonable strategy at one’s Institution. As an example, at UPR- Río Piedras we have been working on the design of a new curriculum for Biology majors, yet it is not scheduled for implementation until Fall 2008. Hence, when I accepted the report’s challenge I had to do it within the current curriculum.

Thus, what I would like to do is to share several different strategies that I have used to introduce quantitative and interdisciplinary concepts into our current curriculum. The strategies that I present are by no means all-inclusive or novel, nor do they represent all the efforts that are being made in our Department to comply with BIO2010. However, I will briefly describe those with which I have been directly involved.

Strategy #1 — Do NOT give up the math in core courses.
As is common at many higher-education institutions, science core courses are offered as lectures of 100 plus students in an amphitheater. Regardless of how one feels about that learning environment, it is a reality that many educators have to deal with iii. Due to the many limitations that this setting imposes it is very easy to become frustrated as one attempts to balance course content, pedagogy, and students’ previous knowledge and skills. The easy way out in a course like this is, instead of including more quantitative and interdisciplinary content, to “dilute” or completely eliminate them from the course.

In my Department, I was recruited to coordinate and teach a 1-year, 4 credits/ semester, Molecular and Cellular Biology course that encompasses concepts from biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology, and developmental biology. This is an upper-level course, with an enrollment of approximately 200 students, that demands a lot from them, and from the faculty as well. When I joined the course, students expressed frustration because they were not given the opportunity to practice and develop the quantitative concepts that are an intricate part of the course. Thus, I was faced with the challenge of how to manage the course’s math content. Do I keep it or take it out? If I keep it, how can I help my students develop the skills and concepts that are required of them?

Around that time we had the opportunity to have Dr. John Jungck, from Beloit College, give a workshop at our campus. He is well-known for his work in integrating mathematics with biology; specifically in the BioQUEST project iv. I was very influenced by his statement that we need to respect our students and allow them to use the math that we have so much required of them as part of the curriculum v. I knew then that giving up the math in the course was simply not an option. Accordingly, I implemented recitation sessions in which the students, with the aid of a teaching assistant, can practice quantitative problems assigned by the professor. In this setting, students get both additional time to develop skills and more personal attention from the teaching assistant. While this is not a novel idea, it had never been tried before in my Department, and I am happy and proud to say that, although we still have much room for improvement, the students consider the recitation sessions one of the best things that the course offers them. Furthermore, the implementation of the recitation sessions has allowed me not only to keep the math, but to add more interdisciplinary content to the course.

Strategy #2 — Communicate with colleagues
from the Chemistry, Physics, Math and
Computer Science Departments.
Although this is one of the simplest and most logical strategies to develop an interdisciplinary course or curriculum vi, I have found that it is also one of the hardest things to do. In my opinion, this is because as professors we tend to be very sensitive and protective of our course material and we feel exposed (and vulnerable) if we share them with other colleagues, particularly if they are not from our department. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a very productive exercise to share my course syllabus with professors from courses that are a pre-requisite to mine (i.e., General and Organic Chemistry). The goal was to coordinate and ensure that the students who enter my course have the previous knowledge that they need. Unexpectedly, I found great support from my Chemistry colleagues. This simple action allowed us to establish a collaboration focused on helping our students learn the concepts they need for more advanced courses. In addition, it has allowed our students to appreciate and value the integral relationship between chemistry and biology.

Additional benefits from this strategy have been the sharing of information and educational resources amongst professors from different disciplines. This has translated into more pertinent Chemistry courses and, consequently, more interdisciplinary Biology ones.

Strategy #3 — Make laboratories more quantitative
and interdisciplinary
Teaching laboratories are fundamental to develop the technical and analytical skills that our students need as scientists i, ii, vii. The Bio2010 report emphasized the crucial role of hands on learning in the laboratory and the need for independent projects where possible. Along with undergraduate research experiences, laboratory courses are fundamental for our students’ undergraduate academic experience. Therefore I have made the laboratory my main target to integrate quantitative and interdisciplinary content in the curriculum as I can do it in the context of research-like experiences. Thus far I have implemented two different approaches to achieve this goal.

1. Excel® in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory exercises.
Our curriculum requires students to take two upper-level laboratory courses. The Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory is one of four laboratory courses the Department offers from which students may choose. This course offers laboratory experiences in the areas of cell biology, biochemistry and molecular biology. Evaluation of the existing content of the laboratory experiences revealed that they were mostly qualitative and were excluding the quantitative component of the techniques and data analysis of the experiments that were being performed.

A simple way to introduce both quantitative skills and increase computer literacy viii is to incorporate the use of Excel® into our laboratory exercises. For example, as part of the biochemistry set of laboratory experiences in the course, students need to purify and characterize a protein from an unknown sample. Originally the laboratory experiment called for students to perform size-exclusion chromatography, isolate several fractions, and do an electrophoretic analysis of these. Now, we have included the use of Excel® to generate the elution profile of the column, calculate the molecular weight of the protein in the samples using a reference standard, and calculate the protein sample concentration using the Bradford Assay before doing electrophoresis.

2. Bioinformatics web tools in the Molecular Biotechnology Laboratory Project.
In the BIO2010 report, bioinformatics stands out as one of the new interdisciplinary areas of biology in which students need to be proficient. In our current curricular scheme, we do not have any informatics requirement for our students, nor have we described an Introductory Bioinformatics course for undergraduate biology majors until this semester (see Strategy #4). Thus, I wanted to explore if our undergraduate students were receiving exposure to this fundamental aspect of biology and biological research through other experiences in our curriculum. A questionnaire was administered to students in the Molecular and Cellular Biology course (i.e., Biology’s juniors and seniors) that asked them to self-assess their experience using common bioinformatics tools (mostly from NCBI ix). Out of 200 students, 70% considered themselves as having no experience, 10% some, and only 20% thought that they had a lot. These results confirmed my worst fear: our students were obtaining a BS in Biology without knowing about basic bioinformatics tools or their applications.

I targeted the Molecular Biotechnology Laboratory course for this purpose. Although I am aware that this will not solve the problem completely, we needed to start somewhere and the content of this course was ideal to do so. The course is a project-based laboratory that is based on the laboratory manual written by Thiel, et al., “Biotechnology: A Laboratory Project – from DNA to Protein” x. The project consists in the cloning and characterization of the Bacillus licheniformis ·-amylase protein. Initially, when this text was adopted the laboratory exercises that dealt with bioinformatics skills (i.e., molecular visualization of DNA and protein structure using RasMol) were not implemented in the course. As part of this effort, I implemented the exercises on protein visualization (Fig. 1), and also designed 4 new bioinformatics exercises xi. The exercises are designed to complement the laboratory project that is presented in the manual. These include: sequence analysis using the tools from the NCBI web page (GenBank, ORF Finder and BLAST), primer design (Primer3) xii, and restriction enzyme analysis of a DNA sequence (NEBcutter) xiii. The four exercises are presented as handouts and can be done in class or assigned as homework. This semester they were implemented for the first time and the students’ response has been extremely positive.

Strategy #4 — Create new courses
It is inevitable, in any curricular change, to have to create new courses. Nevertheless, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. There are excellent resources available that have been developed by other colleagues who share our vision and objective. As an example, I recently described an Introduction to Molecular Bioinformatics course to be offered as an elective course to Biology majors. This course was approved last semester and will be offered for the first time in the spring of 2007. I planned the course having in mind the aid of a textbook entitled: “Discovering Genomics, Proteomics, & Bioinformatics” xiv. The authors have done a wonderful job integrating the quantitative and computer concepts that are “behind” the study of genomics and proteomics. This book offers a great resource to introduce life science students to bioinformatics, using a hands-on approach without sacrificing the quantitative aspect of the field. Moreover, it has several resources (i.e., an interactive website, instructor manual, etc.) to help and motivate us to embark on the instruction of a new course.

I am very excited about the opportunity to teach this course next semester. The enrollment of the course reached its maximum very quickly, which makes me think that students are enthusiastic to learn about this discipline that exemplifies the interdisciplinary nature of biology today. Our expectation is that this course will be part of the new curriculum that is scheduled to be implemented in the 2008-09 academic year.

There are many ways in which we can, and should, implement the recommendations from the BIO2010 report. Ideally, an interdisciplinary, more quantitative, new curriculum should be an institutional goal to fulfill the commitment to effectively prepare the life scientists of the 21st century. However, there are many reasons why this task may not be feasible for all academic institutions. Nevertheless, we have to accept the challenge and know that, even as individuals, we can make a significant difference if we have: 1) the right attitude to learn new skills and cross departmental/traditional discipline boundaries; 2) the willingness to change - an honest disposition to embrace what’s new and exciting in research and incorporate it into our classrooms; 3) creativity to use the available resources and translate them into powerful learning experiences for our students; 4) open communication with our colleagues from within our department and beyond to learn from each other and share the many individual efforts that are occurring in our campus; and finally, 5) the administrative support to facilitate and make viable all the course and curriculum innovations.

Let’s keep working to offer our students the academic experiences that they need to make novel contributions to the biomedical sciences in the future!

National Research Council Board on Life Sciences. 2002. BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Donovan, S.M., and J.D. Bransford, (Eds.). 2005. How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Allen, D. and K. Tanner. 2005. Infusing Active Learning into the Large-enrollment Biology Class: Seven Strategies, from Simple to Complex. Cell Biology Education 4: 262-268.

BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium.

Jungck, J.R. 1997. Ten Equations that Changed Biology: Mathematics in Problem-Solving Biology Curricula. Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching 23:11-36

Steen, L.A., (Ed). 2005. Math and Bio2010: Linking Undergraduate Disciplines. The Mathematical Association of America.

DebBurman, S.K. 2002. Learning How Scientists Work: Experiential research Projects to Promote Cell Biology Learning and Scientific Process Skills. Cell Biology Education 1: 154-172.

Lindquester, G.J., Burks, R. L., and C.R. Jaslow. 2005. Developing Information Fluency in Introductory Biology Students in the Context of an Investigative Laboratory. Cell Biology Education 4: 58-96.

National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Thiel, T., Bissen, S.T., and E.M. Lyons. 2001. Biotechnology from DNA to Protein: A Laboratory Project in Molecular Biology. New York, NY.: McGraw Hill.

Feig, A.L. and E. Jabri. 2002. Incorporation of Bioinformatics Exercises into the Undergraduate Biochemistry Curriculum. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 30:224-231

Biotools at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Primer3 – Primer Selection Tools.

New England BioLabs. Online Sequence Analysis Tools. NEBcutter V2.0.

Campbell, A. M. and L. J. Heyer. 2007. Discovering Genomics, Proteomics, and Bioinformatics, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA.: Benjamin Cummings.

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