Assistant Professor of Biology Bates College Lewiston, Maine, United States
Lori Banks (Bates College)| Amy McDonough (Bates College)| Dewayne Whittington (Strategic Evaluations, Inc.)| Debra Murray (Baylor College of Medicine)
Early career research trainees in molecular biology are commonly tasked with DNA manipulation projects during summer research programs and early graduate school rotations. However, the learning curve associated with taking a theoretical knowledge of central dogma, and translating that into functional knowledge is often a frustrating experience. To increase the proficiency of trainees with genetic manipulation experiments, we designed a puzzle activity to learn about the role of cis-acting elements in the regulatory regions of an open reading frame (early undergraduate) and a plasmid (late undergraduate and postbaccalaureate). Using a flipped learning approach, students independently read a handout adapted from the Addgene Plasmid 101 manual and watched videos about various cis-acting elements and their gene expression functions. In the classroom, we employed a performance-based assessment technique to reinforce independent learning and test their knowledge of each element’s organization and function. To achieve this goal, students were presented with experimental scenarios and tasked with creating either an open reading frame or plasmid to produce the desired outcome. Conversely, students were also shown schematics of open reading frames or plasmids, and asked to describe potential outcomes or techniques that may make use of those constructs. Following the open reading frame activity, beginning undergraduates’ self-efficacy assessments showed an increase in comfort with and understanding of central dogma and basic genetic manipulation principles. Similarly, for upper-level undergraduates, who completed the plasmid puzzle activity, trainees reported being more confident about pursuing molecular biology experiments. Postbaccalaureate trainees, who participated in the plasmid puzzle activity, attributed their early success in graduate school rotation projects to knowledge gained from the plasmid puzzle exercise. Ongoing studies seek to understand the relationship between early interventions with beginning undergraduates and their success in upper-level courses that include molecular biology.
Example schematic of cis-acting elements from a eukaryotic plasmid used the plasmid puzzle exercise.