29 February 2012

The professor project, part two: the labs

Happy Leap Day, everyone! Today I’m continuing this week’s theme of the project that is currently sucking away all my time and energy...

The Genetics course I am teaching has, in addition to meeting for lecture three times a week, a 3-hour lab period once a week that must be taken concurrently. But here’s the kicker: I have exactly the same students for the lab and lecture. There’s another section of Genetics, but all of those students have the other Genetics professor for lecture and lab. Do you know how amazing that is? I see the same 22 students for six contact hours a week! My university labs were never like that. But this way, I can discuss lecture in lab and vice versa. I’m fortunate that the university does it that way, because it is amazing.

Not so amazing? Actually RUNNING LABORATORIES. But hey, necessary evil.

I realize that my readership is not full of science professors, so suffice to say that my fellow Genetics professor at the institution has found some reliable kit labs that are structured-inquiry-based. That fancy education term basically means the students have to analyze their data and think about more than just “Do step A then B then C then D where D is go home.” Admittedly, after an education full of “cookbook labs”, some of the students have a hard time with it.

Still, I know I’m a genetics nerd, but I think the labs pretty cool. One had them determine whether a woman was likely to inherit a mutant cancer gene based on family history, determine if she carried had the mutant cancer gene in her tumor tissue, and determine if her children had the mutant cancer gene as well, using three different diagnostic assays. That sounds neato, right? Right? I will pretend you said yes.

With these kits, the students usually get results like the image above... and honestly, I think they probably understand it about as well as you do (or less, for my science friends). The difference between you and them, though, is that they will then figure it out and write a full lab report, in scientific paper format, interpreting those results! That’s the standard assignment established by the other Genetics professor, and it is strict but awesome, so I adopted it too. I am sure they hate how long it takes to write their lab reports, but hey! Guess what! I bet that it takes me longer to grade twenty-two lab reports (5-10 pages each) than it takes you to write ONE. So. Yeah. Deal with it, kids.

And anyway, you guys! I can tell they are learning how to interpret data and become good scientific writers! Practice does make perfect! High five!

[By the by, if you stumbled across this page by googling, I don’t know, “clueless first-year genetics professor has no idea how to run labs”, I am here to help! The kit labs we use are this, this, and this.]

Aside from a few other lab exercises that my colleague or I have written, the rest of the lab sessions are literature- and presentation-based. One lab consisted of meeting in a computer lab at the library and learning how to use PubMed. Other labs will allow them to present their research on a genetics topic of their choosing (plus submit a review-like research paper).

But my favorite, what I’m most excited about, and my own idea, are the “journal club” presentations. In groups of three or four, they’re presenting the data from the following papers:

Digging around to select those papers almost killed me, you guys. It took a week of scouring my brain and Google and PubMed and F1000. I realize this is probably lost on most of my usual readers, and I’m sorry. But if you just happen to be looking for genetics-themed papers that are scientifically accessible to undergrads, with a limited number of figures (four to six), over a variety of model organisms, with connections to human disease topics? That’s a ridiculously tall order, as I reminded myself over and over, but these meet it. Booyah!

Of course... the semester is only half over. And those journal club presentations haven’t, uh, happened yet. But so far? So good. I’ll keep you posted!