Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Barcoding Life's Matrix

A comprehensive review conducted by the US National Academies' National Research Council suggests that most high school laboratory experiences fail to conform to established guidelines for effective science instruction. These guidelines advocate designing laboratory experiences such that they produce clear and discernible outcomes, merge science content with learning about the process of science, and integrate hands-on activities into a sequence of traditional didactic course instruction.

So much from the introduction of a community paper that has just been published in PLoS Biology. I remember my own high school times where laboratory experiments had been conducted over and over again for decades. I also remember my disappointment as this had nothing to do with 'real' science. Everything was designed in a way that it could be easily done and the outcome was predictable. There wasn't any surprise element or even a remote sense of discovery. Unfortunately this was also the case in the first two years at university. This is one of the reasons why I am particularly interested in new approaches to scientific education both in schools and universities.

The community paper mentioned above is one of those new approaches and I think it is a very successful one. It describes a project that brought together scientists and educators from the Coastal Marine Biolabs in Ventura, California, the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, and the New York Hall of Science, New York. Barcoding Life's Matrix includes two main strategies for student engagement: a residential research experience for high school students (grades 11/12), and professional development workshops for high school science teachers.

The students go through an intensive, seven-day residential research experience hosted at Coastal Marine Biolabs biosciences laboratory in Ventura Harbor where they work alongside scientists conducting interrelated field, laboratory, and bioinformatics activities. The results are DNA Barcode reference data that are submitted  to BOLD and GenBank. So, next time you query the BOLD database with a sequence of an unknown marine sample it might match one of the records contributed by these young investigators.

BOLD-SDP's customized five consoles
In order to provide a student-friendly online environment the BOLD team designed the BOLD Student Data Portal (BOLD-SDP). BOLD-SDP is a classroom-focused interface to the BOLD database. It provides both instructors and students with the tools necessary to make contributions to the DNA Barcode library.  It also gives students the opportunity to integrate and analyze specimen and sequence data while providing instructors with tools to monitor student progress and evaluate their work. Students can explore BOLD, but they are also able to add their own data it.

High school science teachers are offered a professional development program which provides in-depth pedagogical and procedural training, multimedia instructional materials, and research equipment needed to engage students in the generation and submission of high-quality barcode data within their own school laboratories. I wish my teachers had enrolled to this course.

The Barcoding Life's Matrix project represents a striking new example of how discovery-based science can be effectively translated into secondary educational settings to address science education reform agendas, overcome extremely difficult challenges associated with molecular life science teaching and learning, and engage large numbers of students in the creation of a valuable public and scientific resource (an aspect of the project that students regard as particularly exciting and transformative).

Thumbs up! A very good read with a commendable strategy. There have been a lot of great projects that engage high school students in DNA Barcoding research but this paper represents a step forward as it formalizes the approach. I am sure it will set a precedent.

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