National Experiment Gives First-Year Students Opportunity to be Scientists

Gone are the days of sitting in a traditional first-year introductory biology class. 

You wouldn’t expect students in the English Department to be lectured during their first several semesters without doing any writing,” said Jerry Bricker, associate professor of biology.

Students enrolled in the introductory biology class, Phage Biology, are flipping their coursework.

“We’re seeing a universal trend among universities — especially smaller universities — to flip the program and go hands on first,” said Bricker.

Typically students who plan to major in biology spend their early semesters in the classroom listening to lectures, reading textbook assignments, and taking exams. Laboratory experiments follow in later semesters.

Now first-year students are getting an early and accurate picture of what it’s like to think and act like a scientist.

This semester Bricker’s students are participating in authentic research focusing on bacteriophages — or viruses that infect bacteria.  The research experience comes way of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance, which selected Nebraska Wesleyan University to be an associate member and participate in a national bacteriophages experiment.

Students are collecting, identifying, and isolating viruses from soils. Soon students will extract the virus’ DNA. The DNA will then be sent to a national genome sequencing center.  Students will receive the DNA sequence data next spring and will then learn to use bioinformatics tools to determine gene coding. A first-year biology student will get the honor of sharing the results at a national symposium next spring.

“It’s good to start out in the lab now so that you’ll know how to run a lab later in upper-level classes,” said Nick Johnson, a first-year student from Rochester, Minn. who is planning for a career in forensic science.

“I enjoy getting to do the hands-on work instead of just lecturing and being done with it,” said Kristina McInnes of Las Vegas, Nev., who is also pursuing a forensic science career.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance provided special training last summer to biology professors Bricker and Angela McKinney, as well as NWU junior biology major Rachael Granville who is serving as a student assistant in the Phage Biology course.

In addition to the benefits of participating in a national science experiment, Bricker said Nebraska Wesleyan’s biology professors are hopeful the flip to early hands-on laboratory experience will help students recognize their strengths earlier.

“Hopefully by exposing students early to hands-on science we’ll retain their interest in the major,” said Bricker. “In previous years some students were successful with the textbook work of the general lecture courses but found out too late that they didn’t have an interest working in the lab. By starting off in the lab, students can solidify their interests early.”

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Biology professor Angela McKinney helps Zee Jurado isolate and purify viruses found in soil samples.
Biology professor Jerry Bricker works alongside his first-year biology students.
First-year students are participating in a national science experiment involving viruses.
New students who anticipate majoring in biology now begin their courses in the lab instead of the classroom.