Science teaching goes viral: Alternative course increases undergraduate retention

Feb 04, 2014

An alternative approach to the traditional introductory laboratory course at the undergraduate level significantly increases student retention rates, according to research published in mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

In 2012, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that there is a need for an additional one million science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the United States over the next decade to meet U.S. economic needs. The report noted that even a modest increase in the persistence of STEM students in the first two years of their undergraduate education would alleviate much of this shortfall and recommended replacing conventional introductory laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.

Launched in 2008 with only 12 schools, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) has spread to more than 73 institutions and so far has involved 4,800 students. SEA-PHAGES integrates course-based learning within a framework of scientific activity including real-world research into mycobacteriophage genomics, professional networking, and the opportunity to publish in a scientific journal.

"As direct participants in scientific discovery our goal is to engage, excite, increase confidence and draw students into a cycle of self-motivation," says Graham F. Hatfull of the University of Pittsburgh, an author on the study who leads the program for HHMI. "Phages are people-friendly viruses and their population size and diversity provide an inexhaustible wealth of biological novelty that imposes no obvious limits on the number of students who can participate in SEA-PHAGES."

First-year undergraduates and isolate novel mycobacteriophages from local soil samples, sequence their genomes and then annotate, analyze and compare them to those of other phages. Because each isolated phage is new and they can name them, students have a sense of ownership which helps motivate them to explore viral secrets. The more than 600 genomes so far sequenced include phages called Sunflower, Yo Yo, Funbox, Lucky, Che, Roscoe, and Hercules.

To analyze the effect of the SEA-PHAGES course on student persistence, Hatfull and his colleagues compared retention of students enrolled in the course with retention of all students and STEM majors at 20 institutions. They found that SEA-PHAGES continued on to their second year at significantly higher rates (over 90%) than the other groups (both less than 85%.)

"Our core hypothesis was that participation in phage research would not only elevate student engagement in science, it would also provide invaluable insights into phage diversity and evolution," Hatfull notes.

"Seven weeks in, and I still have no idea what I'm doing. But there's a key difference now. Seven weeks ago I was beyond frustrated in my lack of knowledge. Now I have come to realize that this is what science truly is: guess and check, take a leap of faith and hoping you get lucky, making mistakes and learning to correct them," says student phage hunter Allyson Roberts. "And that has finally inspired me to be intrigued by what I'm doing and what lies ahead of me in this course and in the future that awaits me."

SEA-PHAGES evolved from the Phage Hunters Integrating Research and Education Program (PHIRE), begun by Hatfull several years ago at the University of Pittsburgh.

Seasoned phage hunter, Forest Rohwer at San Diego University, who was not involved in this study, calls SEA-PHAGES a "great idea," noting that it has already proved "extremely successful at teaching people about both phages and genomics."

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