Saturday, January 18, 2014

Microbiology, Creativity, and Extra Credit

Last semester's Microbiology course was a lot of fun for me, as an educator.  Regardless of student evaluations (which I haven't looked at quite yet), I had a wonderful time, and I think so did most of my students. Because of life (remembering John Lennon's dictum that "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans"), I wasn't able to blog as often as I had hoped during the semester, and tell readers the wonderful things that happened during my course.  Still, I will write bits and pieces about that class (as well as my upcoming freshman cell and molecular biology course) in the coming semester.  

I did a few things differently last semester, and I believe that they made a difference.  For one thing, I moved to a Tuesday - Thursday lecture schedule, which allowed more time for student discussion Sure, I couldn't cover everything I wished, but I already couldn't do that in a MWF structure.  Bit by bit, I have come to see that my goal is to teach my students how to think about microbiology rather than just what to think, or merely memorize.  Amy Vollmer of Swarthmore College has had a great deal of influence on me regarding this topic; I recommend her essay here.  More to the point, I recommend the indispensable Elio Schaechter's thoughts on the subject here.  In my opinion, the interface between professor and student should be collaborative, not one way.

Thus, I believe that student interaction (with peers and professors) is a very important part of learning.  For the past couple of years, I have been trying what I call (based on a colleague's classroom approach) "Microbial Minutes™."  I present a concept or question, let the students ruminate in small groups, and then we all discuss the concept or question as a class (with me more facilitating than lecturing). It's not perfect, but I was impressed by the students' willingness to discuss their ideas and perceptions; it also gave me a window into how the students were perceiving the material I was presenting.

The students seemed to like this approach, which I had hoped.  In particular, they understood with good humor the awful, awful truth that I simply cannot teach them all of the Overwhelming Microbial Goodness™(OMG) of my field in one semester, regardless of how it is organized.  I guess that is why I keep getting called a Microbial Supremacist™, a epithet I whole-heartedly embrace! 

Anyway, it was a fun class, filled with positive, hard working students, as you can see.  I truly am lucky to be where I am, doing what I do, with students like these.

I have a long standing interest in mixing the study of biology with art, carried out by students, as I have documented overall here and here.  I find as I look around the blogosphere and Twitter, I see other wonderful examples of microbially-influenced art, such as here, here, here, and in omnibus form here.

I recently saw this truly fantastic piece of "Petri dish art," created by Amy B. of the Provincial Laboratory of Public Health in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  Amy told me the following: 

The van Gogh picture was created on Uriselect chromogenic agar which is a white colour. Different bacteria show up as different colours so the following were used:  
Pink=E. coli 
Dark blue= Enterococcus 
Light blue= Klebsiella pneumoniae 
Red= Serratia marcescens (this is actually its naturally occurring ruby pigment, not from the chromogenic agar)
White= Candida albicans
Yellow= Micrococcus luteus (again, this was it's naturally occurring pigment not from the chromogenic agar) 
I used a metal pick and a glass spreader to inoculate the plate approximately in the design of the picture, then incubated at 35℃ for 24-48 hrs and this was the final result!
The reach of Twitter is impressive, as is Amy's result, which I very much would like to see as a framed art print!

Now, that beautiful piece of microbial art didn't have anything to do with my students, but I was pretty awestruck by it.  Especially since I love van Gogh's work.  But more to the point, it isn't simply lovely art. The "dish art" reinforces many important ideas in microbiology, ranging from natural pigments (carotenoid like pigments in Micrococcus, possibly involved with UV resistance), to the antimicrobial properties of other pigments (such as prodigiosin from Serratia, which is also being investigated as an anticancer drug), to the details and uses of chromogenic media in medical microbiology ("Uriselect" media is really quite interesting; different organisms reacting with the media components create different colors).  Such an assignment is not a lark for students; it reinforces many important aspects of Matters Microbial™. 

I find that students become more engaged in their studies when there is a creative element, and that element often expresses itself artistically.  This can be seen here.  Thus, in last semester's microbiology course, I gave my students the opportunity to have an extra credit "creative" project revolving around microbiology. The students were told to scafford their projects in the following fashion: (i) get verbal approval of their project from me, (ii) turn in a one page detailed description of the proposed project a week after that, and (iii) make the project become reality via hard work and ingenuity!  

I would like to share the results with you, which pleased me no end. Not only were most of the results beautiful to look upon, but they also showcased aspects of the course seen through students' eyes and creativity.  Some projects were pretty straightforward, and others were truly...unique!

Ari experimented a bit with the design of bacteriophage T4 using very delicate paper.

Sophie was taken with the micro-centric nitrogen cycle, and made a vest!  

Morgan remained fascinated by the structure of viruses in general.

Toma and Leo decided to turn a photograph of, um,  me into a cartoon made up of microbial shapes.  I guess being called "OG" not as "original gangsta" but "original germ" is high praise?  Or so I hope.  Here is the illustration:


And here is the close up, to show how the two students made the cartoon of yours truly.

Kacy became very interested in microbial symbioses, and decided to use some teenagers she knew in a video to explore this topic.

Christina made a multi-page booklet exploring the various members of the Proteobacteria, which one must admit could be a great study guide.

Christina went on to create a clay sculpture of bacteria and bacteriophage that I am proud to have on display in my office.

 Megan showed quite an artistic bent, as well, as she created a copper etching that she printed onto art paper.  I have her artwork framed in my office, as well.  Notice the bacteriophages, the DNA helices, and the trilobite (because of evidence of an ancient thiotrophic symbiosis with sulfur oxidizing bacteria).

It's interesting to recall that these students seldom tell me that they are truly artistic.  I think they are.  How about you?

Megan and Andrea went a bit further, and created a bioluminescent video that mixes in some interpretive dance!

Speaking of art, Tiffany was enchanted by the Vibrio fischeri symbiosis with the Hawai'ian Bobtailed Squid and the Japanese Pinecone Fish.  So she decided to paint her interpretation of that association.

Oh, I forgot to mention:  she also used luminescent paint (see in this self photograph!).

Rayne is a skilled photographer, and enjoyed taking photos of Photobacterium leignothi by its own bioluminescence.

And Rayne even tried his hand at time-lapse photography of bioluminescence, as seen here.

Finally, several of my students were clearly influenced by my discussion of microbial taxonomy, 16s rRNA analysis, and the late, great Carl Woese.  Jenni, Lauren, and Quincy created a "parody video," based on Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" controversial video of last year...but about microbial taxonomy.  It is witty and clever, both.  

I hope you can see how each of these "extra credit" projects, in their own way, helped the students learn and integrate concepts from microbiology in innovative and personal ways.  Plus, I was impressed by their creativity, humor, and "problem solving" abilities.  Don't sell this "creative extra credit project" idea short---it clearly has benefits for many students, on many levels.  It helps make learning, well, personal

Summing up,  I must say that this particular class meant a great deal to me.  On the last day of class, I even commemorated that with luminous praise, courtesy of my old friend Photobacterium leignothi

 The result of all of my experiences last semester is the usual "moving target" of teaching:  I have many ideas to try out next year!  I hope that my microbiology class next year is as engaged, positive, and hard working as this one.

Thank you, class.  Truly.


  1. Brilliant! Thanks for sharing your students' creative work! Awesome!!

  2. The funny part to me is that the students were passive, and not positive...until I told them I valued what they were doing. That it mattered. Some were a little "psychologically Amish" with me (afraid of pride or arrogance, maybe?). But the fact remains: the students who tried to find some creative approaches to microbiology did a WONDERFUL job.

  3. Wow Mark. Way to go! Im totally stealing this idea.

    1. It really does depend on the class, Seth. But it's fun to try! As for "stealing," well, it is really the students doing the cool stuff. And the idea isn't super unique (though I have had people at meetings tell me about their new idea I should try out...that I had been doing for years; I just smile and thank them enthusiastically). We are all supposed to be on the same team!

  4. Fabulous! Love your philosophy and ideas. I've found all these things to be true, and have been working over the years to accomplish the same goals. Kudos to you. Your students are very lucky.

  5. I love your teaching philosophy and your creative methods to get students to think and use information rather than just memorize it. I've been working on the same goals for the past 15 years, and it has been a wonderful journey. Kudos to you! Your students are very lucky to have you guiding their exploration of the microbial world.

  6. Dear Sherie---not sure if we have met (apologies if so), but thank you for your kind words. There are days my students think I do a good job, and days I remain the Happy Reaper. But they are all great young women and me, and deserve our time. What I like best about this kind of assignment is that I get genuine artwork for my office---and get to brag about my students! Best wishes and thanks again...I'm never really sure if folks read these posts!

  7. Superb art works. Love the Van Gogh plate, the etching and the bioluminescent photographs!


    1. Many tanks for your comments. I'm a lucky fellow, to have students like these in my class and lab.


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!