Calvin freshmen get hands-on research experience

February 2, 2009
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The Science Education Alliance of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has chosen Calvin College to implement a research-based course for freshmen over the next three years.

"The HHMI wants to basically advance programs in science education from kindergarten all the way up through graduate schools," said John Wertz, assistant professor of biology at Calvin. "They are starting with this program with college freshmen, integrating the lecture material with real hands-on lab research experience. It's going to be a complete new paradigm for a course."

The students are asked to isolate bacterial viruses in soil samples. Over the holiday break, the HHMI sequences the DNA of the bacteriophage. Students then will spend the second semester analyzing the viruses' genes.

Prior to the course, professors are provided training in how to teach it.

The HHMI, which has committed $4 million to the project, picked 12 colleges last year to inaugurate the three-year project. That first group included Hope College in Holland. Calvin was chosen to be among the second dozen and will offer the class to 20 honors biology students starting next fall, Wertz said.

Wertz said it's unusual for freshmen to be offered a class so advanced, which includes some facets he didn't encounter until graduate school.

"This is direct, hands-on experience with research that is meaningful," Wertz said. "It isn't cookbook laboratory stuff. It's answering real research questions. This is something that's going into a large database that is going to be used to answer real scientific questions, so all these students are providing real, usable data."

While the HHMI funding will last for three years, Wertz said he expects Calvin will be committed to continuing the program on its own, with the goals of improving student retention and improving the preparation of scientists.

"We believe this will be a new paradigm for the way we teach here and will lead to, down the road, better advanced courses," Wertz said.

Calvin already has an electron microscope, which is the only way to see the viruses. At the programs already underway, students have grown attached to them, naming them and even showing them off. Some students have already presented their findings at scientific conferences.

At Hope College, Assistant Biology Professor Aaron Best said the experience with the program has been positive.

"Overall, I've just been incredibly impressed with the program," Best said. "We've gotten uniformly positive feedback from all the students. It's a pretty incredible opportunity for freshmen."

Best said the question of whether the program will continue beyond the three-year HHMI funding is still open, particularly in the difficult economy. Hope also runs the program as an honors biology course for about 20 students. The most expensive portion is the DNA sequencing, which is handled by HHMI. But, Best said, he expects that technological advances may bring that cost down by the time the grant expires.

He said Hope and Calvin will share ideas as the program unfolds.

"We looked at our data yesterday for first time," Best said last week. "This is stuff nobody's ever seen before. It's actual discovery and actual contribution, and they're first-year students."

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