Sunday, November 27, 2016

Tests, Brave Micronauts, and Educational Art!

One of the things that I never believed as a student lo these many years ago was that professors didn't like giving examinations, and didn't feel that your score really "measured" your worth or abilities as a student.

On the other side of the lectern, I am here to tell you that it is very true:  we don't enjoy giving exams (well, and we enjoy grading them even less).  We indeed don't think a student's performance on a test measures much other than how much they studied.

When my sons were younger, I would ask them what a test was intended to measure.

"What you learned in class?" they promptly replied.

But that would be a long, long test, I reminded my sons (and I remind my students of that when they ask).  All a test really does, friends and neighbors, is measure how hard you studied consistently.  That is a valuable measure, but imperfect.

Over the years, I have found that students learn best when there exists ownership on their part.  The student selects the term paper topic.  The student comes up with a challenging question.   Ownership works.

In my Fall semester Microbiology course here at the University of Puget Sound, I have seventeen brave micronauts to whom I preach the One True Microbial Faith™.

Test times can be challenging.  First, I have a mascot (from Micropia, the microbiology museum in Amsterdam) encouraging them.

Next, I feed them.  Too much grease from McDonald's hash browns this time, I suspect. But they are young, and have remarkable metabolisms.

I then hand out "Comfort Microbes" from GiantMicrobes to relax the students during test taking.

Emily with MRSA
Juniper cuddles up to Chlamydia
Carly gets to know Campylobacter
Anne lives tough with a tardigrade pillow.

Renee and the Zika virus have a special moment
Erin gently holds an old student made Bdellovibrio, which is now sadly falling apart.

Trini and Salmonella were meant for each other.
Molly and staphylococcus seem of one mind.

Josh and his Treponema get to work (sssh---don't call Treponema syphilis)

On this exam, I asked my micronauts to illustrate with a cartoon (and hopefully some humor) one of the concepts we discussed in class since the first exam.  In the past, I have found this approach has interesting effects:  it encourages deep and integrative thinking, the "new" approach shakes up the student brain, and I learn fascinating insights into my class, and the student mind.

Here is what my micronauts came up with on Exam #2.  Enjoy!

One of the concepts I repeated many times during the "microbial metabolism" portion of my course is the role that precursor metabolites play.  PMs are the "common metabolic language" all living things "speak."

Recently in class, my I discussed with my micronauts the idea from Carl Zimmer's fine essay "The Human Lake" that we humans are a series of ecological niches in which microbes can adapt and prosper.  Walking ecologies, we are!

Thought we didn't have a lot of time to discuss it, I always enjoy telling students about giruses in general, and in particular the discovery of the mimiviruses, including the origin of their name as microbe mimicking viruses!  Viruses with more DNA than many bacteria, and visible under the light microscope...well, it helps micronauts see that my beloved microbiology is not simple!

During my short sessions on virology, I do speak a bit about influenza.  The concept of antigenic shift seems to stay with students effectively.

Now this one was interesting!  The cartoon is based on phenotypic complementation/synergism observed in our lab when two Serratia marcescens mutants blocked at different steps of prodigiosin synthesis are streaked near to one another.

We see this phenomenon each year during the genetics portion of the microbiology lab, and students always find it pretty interesting.

So the cartoon makes sense.  Including the "prodiawesome" pun.

I often tell my micronauts to think about gene regulation of the organisms in our gut---expression of various catabolic genes must change quickly during our meals.  So here we go from being "hangry" to being well-regulated!

Speaking of regulation, the way negative regulation of the tryptophan operon in E. coli works reminded one student of the relationship between TrpR and the co-repressor tryptophan.

The Rainey and Travisano paper showing "adaptive radiation" of Pseudomonas syringae in small glass tubes is a conceptual winner, year after year.  The Hand of Darwin is on us all, and evolution can take place during cultivation of bacteria!  

This led one of my students to, um, some dark places.

We also discussed how horizontal gene transfer impacted interactive and operational genes during lecture.  The concept was on the following student's mind!

I was very glad to see that at least one student shared my fascination with riboswitches.  Adding cis and trans effects to the mix only made me happier. 

I consider Rubisco and nitrogenase to be the two most important enzymes on the planet (fixing carbon and fixing nitrogen).  In this cartoon, the student links the course paradigm of compartmentalization to the toxic effects of oxygen on nitrogenase. In this case, a heterocyst from a cyanobacterium mixed in with a bit of Harry Potter! 

When I teach my micronauts about precursor metabolites, I remind them that when we eat a steak, we don't just plop the steak onto our arms and have it fuse muscle tissue to muscle tissue.  Instead, we break down the steak to protein to amino acids, and then build things up again with that common metabolic language of PMs.  

This clearly had an impact on one student, in a holiday relevant fashion.

No exam can cover every topic discussed during lecture (nor would any student want to take such an exam!).  So I was quite pleased with this one.  At one point during the evolution portion of the course, I had the students read a bit about the elusive Lokiarchaeta, which may be the ancestor of every eukaryotic cell. One reason, according to the reading, was the presumptive flexibility of the cell membrane, allowing this early cell to carry out endocytosis (something there is little evidence for among bacteria and archaea). But endocytosis is absolutely necessary for the modern eukaryotic cell, with mitochondria and chloroplasts; it is the centerpiece of the endosymbiotic theory of cellular evolution.

So this student gave a "Jaws"-like thematic view of this ancient, ancient possible ancestor.

When I discussed virology with my micronauts, I did spend some time on influenza.  And the characteristics of the virus that make genetic drift and shift possible are fascinating.    Note how this student does a nice job illustrating how a progeny virus can end up with a "reassorted" segmented RNA genome!  This is, in fact, the basis of genetic shift in influenza.

The concept of the Type Six Secretory System acting like a spear or stiletto to kill or inhibit other bacteria remains fascinating to students, as you can see.

The last cartoon from my micronauts is a bit personal.  Microbial taxonomy is a strange field of study, only recently finding a basis using molecular chronometers.  In the past, it was solely based on phenotypes.  And not all phenotypes are created equal!

In graduate school, I worked a bit with Rhizobium meliloti, which induces nitrogen fixing root nodules on alfalfa plants.  My PhD advisor, as a postdoc, had made mutants of R. meliloti that could not form nodules---making it possible to "fish out" genes responsible for that complex and fascinating symbiotic phenotype.

The story goes that, as my advisor was giving a seminar on this topic, an extremely venerable microbiologist interrupted.  He insisted that the mutant bacterium was no longer Rhizobium meliloti.

Certainly, based on DNA, it was.  But the venerable microbiologist insisted that the definition of Rhizobium meliloti was "that which nodulates alfalfa."


I use this story to illustrate the dangers of trusting in any one phenotype.  And I think the story "stuck"!

I continue to think that this "cartoon" approach to learning has its place.  Consider adding it to your armory of educational tools! Truly, ownership is central to student learning; this can help.

Plus, I am proud of my micronauts and wanted to show off their wit and wisdom.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Biology 350 "Nanobiographies" by my Proud Micronauts!

One of the problems I face here at the University of Puget Sound is what I call the "N=1" issue.  There is only one microbiology class!

Thought it is true that I strongly believe that microbiology should "Occupy the Curriculum"----

----I still have to deal with the single course in microbiology we have available to our undergraduate students.  I do my best to turn them into enthusiastic micronauts in the one semester we have available.  Here is my current class of #Bio350 micronauts.

One way to do that is to give the students an opportunity to really delve deeply into a specific microbiological subject.  There is, after all, so much to microbiology overall (especially in a one semester course).

In my course, we don't call them term papers.  We call them "Microbiographies."  And as part of this assignment, I encourage my micronauts to create one page summaries of their topic, written for a non-science audience (such as nonscientist parents or friends in other majors).  Since these summaries are only one page long, it is natural that I call them "Nanobiographies"!

Please enjoy the Nanobiographies written by my hard working micronauts of Biology 350 in the Fall of 2016.

Renee became fascinated by Type III Secretory Systems.

Carly became intrigued by the idea of using bacteria to fight cancer directly.
Juniper explored a very, very hostile environment on Earth, despite an amusing name:  snottites and acid biofilms.
Austin, with his interest in dentistry, wrote about the OG of the cariogenic world, Streptococcus mutans.
 Mara quickly became entranced by the wonders of Wolbachia.
Makenzie explored a common food born pathogen, Listeria.
Jesse decided to shine a light on the archetypal squid-Vibrio symbiosis, with a bit of Harry Potter thrown in.
 Trini explored the possibility that gut microbes could impact human behavior.
Molly wrote about the central issue of how we obtain our microbiota at birth.
 Emily, interested in life on other planets, decided to write about SLiMEs, which could easily be found on other worlds.
Kyle enjoyed writing about some microbes can generate electricity.
Anna, with her deep interest in marine biology, explored the relationship between microbes and coral.
Brennan wrote about Streptococcus pyogenes, one of several "flesh eating" bacteria.
An avid swimmer, Anne wondered about what microbes could join us in the pool!
It's true that Josh went there:  fecal transplants.  No wonder "South Park" is involved.
Erin became interested in the role that human microbiota might have on cancer treatment in general.
Cooper decided to delve into the scary world of MRSA.

I find that when students select their own topics, there is more "ownership" of the assignment.  It certainly seems that way when I look over the interesting Nanobiographies written by my current crop of #Bio350 micronauts.

I hope you enjoyed their essays, as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Microbial Awards Season in Biology 350!

I have been called a Microbial Supremacist™ more than once.  I cannot deny it; in fact I enthusiastically embrace the description.  I wrote about that path here.

The fact is, microbiology can get a bad name in our "low information" culture (oh, no---"culture," ha ha).  So I have long believed that #MicrobialPR is an important part of my job.

Thus, the Fall semester of each year here at the University of Puget Sound is a special time for me, filled with Overwhelming Microbial Goodness (#OMG™) to share with my intrepid and hard working micronauts taking Biology 350 here in Tacoma.

Each year, with the help of science artist Kaitlin Reiss, I create a "logo" for my microbiology course.  Here is the image for this year, with a Snoop Dogg vibe, I cheerfully admit.

I get my micronauts buttons and T-shirts with the design.  I think they like it, and it bonds us together into a cooperative and convivial quorum.

Who knows if I can change lives?  I do know that I can change the way my students view the world, using "microbial-colored glasses." 

I also believe that art can intersect with science, often in ways that enhance learning.  This semester, I had my Biology 350 micronauts try it two different ways, with (hopefully) some success.

First, the Vexed Muddler and I cooked up a #MicrobialArt competition.  The goal was to have students come up with microbially themed artwork.  Here is what Peggy wrote in her instructions to my micronauts:
Microbial comic contest! 

Make it funny, action-packed, educational, or full of drama - you're in charge. Bacteria with bulging biceps, dewy-eyed anime fungi, and stick-figure phages are equally welcome. The three comics that impress me the most will be awarded awesome prizes, and there's a bonus for all participants, so get doodling!

Everything in life has rules:

1. Your comic can have any number of panels, but it must be legible and fit on one side of a single sheet of 8.5"X11" paper. Points docked for going over!

2. Your comic will NOT be judged on artistic merit, but if I can't tell what anything is, it will be hard to appreciate, so try to make it as clear as you can!

3. Must have something to do with microbiology (duh). 

4. Must be original content - I know all the best microbial comics on the internet, so make sure yours is original!

5. Digital entries are accepted, but the print size of the image must be within the size limit. 

There were a number of entrants, and Peggy selected her favorites, also giving some words of praise and feedback to go along with some awesome Vexed Muddler #MicrobialSwag.

Anne won Third Place with her submission of a pop-art way to view horizontal gene transfer.

Here is Ann accepting her award of a sweet "microbial juvenile delinquents" pencil case.

Juniper's submission won Second Prize and depicts some of the "recycling" aspects of Type VI secretion system "warfare."

And Juniper seems quite happy with her #TardigradeToteBag.

Finally, Josh's art won the coveted First Prize, showing unfair and inaccurate assumptions we make about the microbial world versus our own macroscopic world.

Josh proudly holds the Vexed Muddler designed "Microbial Creation" coffee mug.

That was a heck of a #MicrobialMorning, but there was more to come.  That's right:  it was then time for the #LuxAcademyAwards! Earlier this semester, I had students create "microbial art" by "painting" with luminous bacteria (Photobacterium leignothi) on Petri dishes.  I then wanted folks across the Internet to vote on their favorites, and distribute yet more #MicrobialSwag to lucky #MicrobialArtists!

The most challenging (and frustrating) part was finding a way to tabulate votes!  But I did it!  So here are the results---I adore the #MicrobialCreativity!

I found "glowstick" lollipops to set the mood in class as we began our awards ceremony.

Carly created our #LuxArt2016 7th Place winner!  "Who Runs the World," indeed.  Of course the answer is "microbes"!

Here is a video of Carly receiving her #MicrobialSwag:

Erin created our #LuxArt2016 6th Place winner!  It kind of has a Van Gogh vibe that appeals to me.

Here is a video of Erin receiving her #MicrobialSwag::

Jesse created our #LuxArt2016 5th Place winner!  It was pretty meta to have a painting of a bioluminescent organism using bioluminescent organisms, right?

Here is a video of Jesse receiving her very appropriate (see the blinking plush toy?)  #MicrobialSwag:

Molly created our #LuxArt2016 4th Place winner.  Quite intricate!

Here is a video of Molly receiving her #MicrobialSwag:

Anne created our #LuxArt2016 3rd Place winner.  It's very appropriate to our host institution, the University of Puget Sound, as you can see.

Here is a video of Anne receiving her #MicrobialSwag: a hungry mascot:

Mara was our #LuxArt2016 2nd Place winner!  From my point of view, you cannot go wrong with a tardigrade theme.  A lot of voters agreed.

Here is a video of Mara receiving her #MicrobialSwag:  a tiny tardigrade toy, and a plush STD.  Hmmm.

Finally, Juniper is our #LuxArt2016 1st Place winner!  The intricate nature and care with which she drew Daphnia and Volvox impressed many voters.

Here is a video of Juniper receiving her #MicrobialSwag, which is a Vexed Muddler #MicrobialPillow!

I am sad to report that there was no tres coolio  #MicrobialAfterparty with many celebrities and the media snapping photos.  

Instead, it was time to get back to discussing how microbial ecology relates to the human microbiota!

I really enjoy the intersection between microbiology and art, and I like to think my micronauts do as well.  I find that students deeply think about the topics they depict artistically, or the medium (ha!) that they are using.

I hope you enjoyed the efforts of my micronauts, as well!  

Yes, I enjoy teaching #MicrobialSupremacy!  And I think that Peggy Muddles captured the "real" me with this #MicrobialPortrait.