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Redefining Biology Education

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Scott Freeman

How can we make Biology education work for everyone no matter their educational background? What are the key components of an inclusive and successful Biology education? In one of the largest studies of its kind, Scott Freeman and the Biology Education Research Group (BERG) hope to find an answer.

UW Biology has a long history of pioneering active learning and incorporating faculty research into undergraduate courses – commonly known as course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). However, this year Scott Freeman, Professor Ben Kerr, and the BERG team took undergraduate research experiences a step further. They introduced CUREs on a large-scale into the Biology introductory series to test learning outcomes for students at the beginning of their scientific journey.

Introductory students conducted experiments across two quarters for BIOL 180 and BIOL 200. The overarching theme of the CURE was to further the work of the Kerr lab by studying the experimental evolution of antibiotic resistance in Escherichia coli. Students explored collateral resistance and collateral sensitivity – how resistance or sensitivity to one drug is associated with resistance or sensitivity to another – and compensatory mutations – the persistence of resistance, even in the absence of drugs, because the cost of resistance genes has gone down. In BIOL 180, students selected resistant E. coli on rifampicin and streptomycin-infused plates, let them undergo many generations of evolution with the drugs present, then assayed the level of resistance and fitness. In BIOL 200, students sequenced genes from both ancestor and descendant E. coli cells to visualize changes in RNA polymerase that resulted from evolution. At the end, students analyzed their data and presented their results at a departmental poster session. Various Biology faculty and staff, notably Dr. Ben Kerr and Kerr lab manager Katie Dickinson, will use the student results to build a dataset they can use for their research.

Freeman studied student outcomes using two experimental approaches:

The first was a direct side-by-side comparison, where some student sections participated in CUREs while others participated in traditional lab sections. Traditional labs are designed to reinforce class concepts, so Freeman wanted to know if implementing CUREs would hurt student exam scores. It turned out CUREs did not negatively impact exam scores; in fact, CURE participants saw learning gains on natural selection and experimental design.

For the second experiment, all students participated in the CURE. The BERG team wondered how CUREs would impact a student’s education:

  • Was there any special benefit or harm to underrepresented and/or first-generation students?
  • Was there increased interest in undergraduate research?
  • Did students gain a greater understanding of experimental design?
  • How did participating in a CURE impact a student’s identity as a scientist?
  • Did the CUREs promote a sense of belonging and confidence in undergraduate research?

Freeman and members of the Biology Education Research Group are currently busy analyzing the data – the largest experiment and data set ever done on CUREs. Their results will have profound implications on Biology education. Freeman hopes CUREs will encourage more students to pursue undergraduate research and help underrepresented students gain confidence in their skills as a scientist. The hope is for CUREs to nurture students’ passion for Biology and to make the joy of doing science more accessible to all.

Project Team:

  • Dr. Scott Freeman
  • Dr. Katie Dickinson
  • Dr. Joya Mukerji
  • Dr. Ben Kerr
  • Dr. Elli Theobald
  • Dr. Toby Bradshaw
  • Liz Warfield, John Parks, and Kelly Hennessey
  • Colin Sedlacek
  • Peer Facilitators
  • Graduate Teaching Assistants