Thursday, April 23, 2015

Barcoding local - Contributions by course participants (2)

Here is the second contribution by one of my current DNA Barcoding course participants. Joanna Werner-Fraczek is an associate professor at Moreno Valley College, California. She is looking at DNA Barcoding as an educational tool and presents how it was implemented into the college's undergraduate program.

Does DNA barcoding belong in community colleges? “To be or not to be” is the question I would like to answer first, since I am an associate professor at a community college in Southern California who believes that research-based learning is the best approach to teach biology. My six-year teaching experience tells me that the biological message is even more powerful if it is supported with new technology. DNA barcoding seems to be the perfect fit; the technique is fairly straight-forward (collect samples, isolate DNA, amplify the fragment of interest, send off for sequencing, identify the species in BOLD, supplement with morphological/phenotypic data), yet it uses database searches that bring the flavor of doing something really smart. Even more, when students collect an insect or grow a plant, it becomes their own “pet”, therefore they immediately develop an attachment to it. Now they love what they do; biology becomes an intriguing engaging science. It is a win-win situation.

The second question is how to integrate DNA barcoding into teaching, so it creates a meaningful tool for a bigger cause. This is what I have developed. Every year, my college experiences the migration of cliff swallows coming from Central or South America to breed. They build multiple nests around campus, utilizing the nearby lake as a water source, and the surrounding hills as a mud source for their nests. The Flying With Swallows (FWS) undergraduate research project proposes two avenues of investigations. The first one, Ecosystem Survey, includes fauna observations on a year-round basis to monitor the presence of all birds with an emphasis on cliff swallows, mammals, reptiles and insects on the campus. The annual fauna fluctuations will be recorded on a dynamic “living” map available on the college website, constructed using ArcGIS Online, constantly updated using a smartphone application. The second path of the FWS project focuses on Ecosystem Investigation, where conducted research goes beyond observations, and includes biological magnification studies using swallows as monitoring organisms for pollutants. The FWS project is designed to integrate research into Biology and Chemistry courses with a common research theme. The DNA barcoding technique has been employed by biology major students to identify insects present on the campus and to identify swallows on a molecular level. DNA barcoding allows for introduction of major molecular biology techniques to a course such as DNA extraction, PCR, electrophoresis, concentration check and database searches. With the project umbrella over the course, students develop the sense of research continuation, and the individual labs are not a random collection of “who knows what for” techniques.

The third question a reader might ask now, is how smooth the incorporation and integration have been. Well, there is some level of complexity to everything we do. The incorporation-related problem is the cost. With colleges being chronically underfunded, purchase of kits for DNA extraction, and gel purification is an issue that currently can only be solved by outside funding (please, wish me luck with this task). However, what motivated me to take this course is the trouble I ran into when I tried DNA barcoding the first time last year for insect identification. We were able to identify campus insects down to the genus only, not to a species. So what I am eventually hoping to learn is the practical knowledge on how to use BOLD so the samples can be identified by the species name. Considering the fact that I am in the community college, our research will never reach the levels of discussions we had in this course, however, it represents the use of DNA barcoding for everyday life including teaching.

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