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Revamped biology labs offer more than a recipe for success

Science starts in the lab.

So for all of the pre-med students, would-be researchers and future public health analysts among Emory College undergraduates, Megan Cole has made that first step to understanding biological concepts a question of authentic research.

Hired three years ago, Cole has gradually overhauled the biology labs from “cookbook” activities to modules centered on active, hands-on research.

“Some students would leave the major, because they had a complete misrepresentation of what science is,” says Cole, who is a lecturer in the biology department in addition to her role as director of undergraduate laboratories.

Science labs have often meant following a specific recipe of instructions to achieve a known result. While it can be frustrating to move away from using memorization as a means to success, the new approach gives students the opportunity to learn from mistakes and even make discoveries.

“Science is often moving forward without knowing what’s next, and we were losing the excitement of not knowing and then finding something new,” Cole explains.

Building on faculty research

Cole revamped Emory College’s lab curriculum by working with faculty in the biology department and designing projects tied to their research.

Consulting with faculty was a key component, but Cole also knew of similar work at Oxford College and had talked with them about their modules before the Emory College overhaul.

Oxford, Emory’s original campus that focuses on first- and second-year students, has been on the forefront of such hands-on learning in the sciences for more than a decade.

Oxford biology chair and professor Nitya Jacob developed a lab module that trains students to collect samples on the Arabia Mountain granite outcrop, then investigate the microbes found through DNA isolation and sequencing.

Eloise Carter, an Oxford professor of biology, and Judy Morgan, the retired director of undergraduate laboratories at Emory College, co-authored an investigative biology instruction lab manual to encourage and help plan such active labs. 

And Oxford’s new Science Building was designed specifically to support student-centered and team-based learning.

“Going through each step of the scientific discovery process, including its uncertainty and frustration, gives students a realistic view of thinking and working like a scientist,” Jacob wrote in the journal Science when she was among just 15 winners nationwide of the 2011 Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction and the journal published her paper, “Investigating Arabia Mountain: A Molecular Approach.”

Emory labs teach “guided chaos”

One module last year developed with Chris Beck, a professor of pedagogy in the biology department, had students grow bean beetle larvae on different types of beans — the only food they will ever eat. They then studied how the diet may affect the beetles' microbiome, or bacteria living within their gut.

Another, developed with assistant biology professor Roger Deal, called for students to infect plant roots with bacteria carrying a DNA plasmid to see if that DNA would be expressed in the plant cells.

Such guided inquiry often leads to excitement, even in the messy failures.

Students in one early test lab were confused by the result of their plan to help transform plant roots. The DNA didn’t take hold in the roots as hoped.

But some plant leaves did end up tinted blue, the marker signifying they had been exposed to the bacteria.

Students concluded lab errors — accidentally crushing the leaves with the tweezers with bacteria on them — were behind the discovery of an alternate way to get the DNA into the plants.

“It’s best described as guided chaos,” says Daniel Kim, a senior majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, who was among the students in the first test labs.

But that experience was enough to prompt Kim to pursue research in a neurosurgery lab and work as a biology lab teaching assistant for two years.

“You’re are trying to find answers we don’t know, and that’s much more engaging and interesting,” he says.

Looking at research from a real-world lens

It helps that the work has big-picture implications. This past year, students saw the creativity and curiosity that goes into understanding issues such as how organisms can evolve resistance to a pathogen.

The module, developed with assistant biology professor Levi Morran, calls for students to place tiny C. elegans worms on one side of a plate, with a known pathogen the worms adore on the other side.

As the students learn to clean the worms and refresh the plate, they observe and try to back up their hypothesis.

Will the worms evolve, learning to avoid the deadly substance they love and going for healthy food? Will they develop a way to tolerate the thing they love?

There are no clear answers. Some groups saw their C. elegans evolve while others did not.

For some students, that undermined their work, says Nikita Maddineni, a senior biology major who worked as a teaching assistant on the module. Others, she says, adapted quickly to the frustration of messy data and no easy answers.

“In an intro class, some need the results to understand what’s going on,” she says. “But a lot of people really enjoy doing our project when they see it’s their ideas coming alive.”

Another teaching assistant, Elena Totchilova, agrees. The surprise can be part of the fun or the challenge, especially for high-achieving students who’ve grown accustomed to seeing the result they want when they put in the effort.

“The good lesson is that experiments don’t always go the way you planned,” says Totchilova, a senior majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology. “Learning that bad data is still information to use, to plan next time, is more useful than always getting what you expect.”

A growing body of research suggests that the authentic research techniques are a better way to teach science and show the creativity and problem solving often overlooked in a more rote curriculum.

Cole, with a passion for pedagogy, is acutely aware of specific findings that show leaving the cookbook labs behind creates students who are more confident in their research, and much more interested in careers that will include it.

Turning the frustration over a module into curiosity may make a scientist. But it also teaches critical-thinking skills to anyone following the latest findings in the news, Cole says.

“Our goals are not just to keep them as STEM or biology majors,” she says. “Whether they are pre-med or are studying the humanities, they will have a better understanding of the work that goes into these real-world issues.”

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