The students chatted excitedly at the start of class; but it wasn’t about the recent basketball win or the latest real-TV episode. It was about the next gene they had just “discovered.” Can it be genetically engineered for the advancement of humankind?
Screenshots of the excel workbook ABO Blood Group Frequencies to compare methods for calculating allele frequencies of ABO blood groups. Authors: John R. Jungck and Jennifer A Spangenberg, Beloit College. Publisher/Photo: BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium.
This isn’t some teacher’s fantasy biology class. I frequently hear students discussing their recent discoveries as I eavesdrop on classroom conversations during lab time. Since the implementation of sophisticated bioinformatic databases such as Biology Workbench and the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man, I have witnessed an improvement in the level of biological questions and discussions in my classroom. If your school has computers and an Internet connection, this could happen in your classroom, too. The new student interface at Biology Student Workbench makes maneuvering through sequence databases very intuitive. All you need is a curious mind and you can bring your students into the real world of science exploration, taking them from textbook to cyberscience. On top of all this, these resources are provided free of charge by very reliable sources: the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the National Institutes of Health.
“Roughly, bioinformatics describes any use of computers to handle biological information.”12 In addition to its immediate value in the high school classroom, many students will likely benefit from an introduction to bioinformatics if they intend to pursue higher studies in bioscience disciplines such as:
- computational molecular biology, where computers are used to characterize the molecular components of living things
- comparative genomics, that looks for the differences and similarities in the genes of species
- structural genomics, i.e., identifying and predicting protein structures
- medical informatics, the management of biomedical data
- pharmacogenomics, that aims to identify drug targets by applying genomic approaches and technologies
- … and many more
“The explosion of data produced by the Human Genome Project has called forth the creation of a new discipline — bioinformatics, whose focus is on the acquisition, storage, analysis, modeling, and distribution of the many types of information embedded in DNA and protein sequence data.”9 The hope of this article is to encourage teachers, high school through college, to integrate bioinformatic tools in their classroom as a means of providing inquiry-based teaching techniques in subject areas that have been more “chew and chuck” in the past. By this, I refer to giving students the facts and then having the facts regurgitated without meaningful learning having occurred.
“The fundamental nature of science is imbedded in inquiry-based learning. Inquiry can be a very effective mechanism for better understanding the essence of science, its technical and reasoning processes, and the attitudes that accompany these processes.”8 Inquiry learning directly translates from the classroom to society as students search for answers to problems they have encountered in their home, school, or community. Using bioinformatic tools, students generate real data and more importantly apply these applications to independent problem solving. During this process they are actively engaged in the process of learning, and active learning strategies promote more effective learning.3
The U.S. National Science Education Standards (NSES) have provided guidelines to improve the learning environment. “The standards have, in turn, yielded a widely endorsed set of specific goals, such as the following:
- Students should learn science and mathematics as active processes focused on a limited number of concepts.
- Curricula should stress understanding, reasoning, and problem solving rather than memorization of facts, terminology, and algorithms.
- Teachers should engage students in meaningful activities that regularly and effectively employ calculators, computers, and other tools in the course of instruction.”2
Bioinformatics will help teachers and students achieve these goals by providing opportunities to use new technologies during science activities.
Bioinformatics as a unifying tool
Bioinformatics can provide the thread that connects many topics: protein structure, protein function, nucleic acids, genetics, genetic disease, evolution, cell biology, botany, and zoology. Most students view these topics as individual chapters in a book, unrelated to one another despite teachers’ attempts to unify the material. Students study biochemistry, get their test grade, and then forget the material. Use of bioinformatics ties this information together while teaching analysis and interpretation skills in an active, productive learning environment. Biology Student Workbench is a wonderful tool for students to experience the Central Dogma of biology:
- DNA and replication
- RNA and transcription
- proteins and translation
and then to apply it to
- genetic disease
- human physiology
As a result, students are better able to construct meaning from the content and show a greatly increased ability to make connections between units of study.
Real world science
Integration of bioinformatics into the high school classroom will further advance biology education. “Technology makes learning more interactive, enjoyable, and customizable, and this improves students’ attitudes toward the subject and their interest in learning.”10 In addition, it can be argued that the introduction of this technology will prove to be an increasingly important aspect of science education. The National Science Education Standards states: “The relationship between science and technology is so close that any presentation of science without developing an understanding of technology would portray an inaccurate picture of science.”6 Bioinformatics promotes the application of basic scientific research to the teaching of biology. These tools have been used in the classroom to
- demonstrate the importance of the primary structure in proteins,
- visualize the mechanism of translation from nucleic acid to protein,
- and teach about DNA sequencing, the Human Genome Project, and other topics that have previously left little room for student exploration.
Bioinformatics supports the biotechnological techniques that are applied in the classroom. Certain techniques such as DNA fingerprinting and PCR are being used more and more frequently in high school classrooms, and can be facilitated by bioinformatics. For example, if a class performs electrophoresis of the proteins in fish muscle, they can then go a step further and explore whether the actin found in both salmon and trout is identical or if there have been any evolutionary changes.
Many current social and ethical controversies, such as
- genetic engineering
- biological warfare
- stem cell research
as well as unsolved biological mysteries, such as
- the history of human evolution
- phylogenetic trees
- origins of species
are raised by the students as they manipulate this data, thus leading to further explorations. Utilizing technology students can capitalize on these related explorations and thus exercise learner-control while increasing their motivation and making connections to the real world. “Technology also allows for data-driven assessments tied to content standards that, when implemented systemically, enhance the achievement of students as measured in a variety of ways, including, but not exclusively limited to, standardized achievement tests.”10
The goal of integrating bioinformatics in the classroom is to expose students to real-world science and the use of bioinformatics in solving real-world problems. Tutorials are available online to help students and teachers learn how to navigate the student interface of Biology Student Workbench and gather data that can be applied to original questions. Lessons have been developed that are appropriate for the high school level. These lessons center on topics such as
- DNA sequencing
- the role of amino acids in protein functioning
- the molecular basis of genetic diseases
- the use of protein sequences in determining evolutionary relationships
A recent observer of a class involved in such a lesson commented on how amazing it was to see that all the students were busy, engaged, and involved while the teacher operated from the sidelines. Some students exhibited concentration that was narrowly focused as they manipulated their data while others discussed their findings enthusiastically with their neighbor. In all cases, the discussions were centered on bioinformatics.
All science instructors, from kindergarten teachers to college professors, are aware of the national call for reform in science education.1,5,6,7 Further investigation is needed into what constitutes best practice. The nature of this research needs to emerge from the extensive data that qualitative research affords. This data emerges from the classroom. It does not appear in the form of tests or worksheets, but in the body of work the students produce, the quality of projects, and the “Aha!” moments that the teacher witnesses.11 A test at the end of term cannot capture those points in time.
Leamnson in the article “Learning as Biological Brain Change” discussed the difficulty of teaching: “The really difficult part of teaching is not organizing and presenting the content but rather in doing something that inspires students to focus on that content … to have some level of emotional involvement with it.”4 Bioinformatics turns students and teachers into researchers in their own classroom and inquirers into the teaching and learning process. Experience those “Aha!” moments in your classroom by giving bioinformatics a try.
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