I had the privilege of working at my former high school (Berkshire School) right out of college. It was a tremendous opportunity to work with dedicated faculty and students, free of the confines of any state/federal guides. It was at Berkshire where a fortuitous hiring of a new colleague – Dr. April Burch – served as the inspiration (and impetus) to get out of teaching and learn more science. Her decade of experience in virology research kicked off a collaboration at our high school modeling the PhageHunting program started at the University of Pittsburgh. I learned that doing real science was the only way I’d ever want to spend a career as an educator, but knew that I lacked the background to run my own lab. Off to grad school!
Side note: what is “real science” anyway? To me, it boils down to a number of things that Dr. Graham Hatfull once described when outlining the benefits of the PhageHunting program:
- It’s discovery based. Neither the teacher nor student should know the answer before beginning the experiment. Learning something novel is what real scientists spend most of their time doing; recapitulation and confirmation is important, but not the only thing that should take place in a classroom lab.
- It promotes ownership. The work should feel novel and important to the student and impart a sense of personal interest. Not everyone will want to be a geneticist or biochemist, but the act of novel discovery lends itself to a feeling of ownership. Owning a project generates both frustration when things don’t work, often motivates students to overcome obstacles, and serves as a uniquely inspiring moment when sharing their findings. It’s hard to generate that same feeling of achievement when you’re reporting that a potato core gains mass in a hypertonic solution.
- It promotes further discovery. One major obstacle of authentic research in a classroom is time and timing: students have limited minutes in a day, and generally have only one year in a course. Yet many projects take years to complete, with initial experiments leading to further investigations before a whole story is developed. The activities I find best suited to long-term classroom-based research are tasks that can be achieved within a year, but connect to multi-year studies where students can not only feel part of their own personal part of the program, but connected to many other students who came before them and will come after.
So what kind of research have I been doing so far?
It all starts with the tool: Nanopore sequencing. I am a big believer that this technology can help me achieve those three major goals of doing real science in a classroom. I think that sequencing is ultimately a throw back to the natural history courses that dominated early 20th century education: rather than just walking into the woods and teaching kids about the animals and plants of their area, we can use sequencing technologies to talk about the animals, plants, viruses, and microbes in any part of their world, and push beyond just taxonomic identification: we can tackle evolutionary questions, ecology questions, genomic questions… the opportunities are essentially endless for a class or career.
The first opportunity I had to use this sequencing technology was in my former high school, Berkshire School, a private high school in Sheffield, Massachusetts. It was a unique (and brief!) 1-week course part of a broader annual event where students stop their traditional coursework and focus on a pair of unique learning experiences. Over the course of that week we swabbed the mouths of various pets on campus and sequenced the microbiomes from the animals using Nanopore sequencing. I created a course Wiki that describes the wet-bench and bioinformatic training the students gained. It was a great deal of work and a tremendous amount of fun.
I’ve also recently incorporated a similar platform as part of an undergraduate genetics course at University of New Hampshire. See the poster below describing the things we’ve learned from these projects. I’m excited to do more of this next year and (hopefully) ultimately make a career of incorporating modern sequencing and bioinformatic tools in classes across the country.