Students Take Control in the Lab
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Students Take Control in the Lab

Sara Abdulaziz and Savannah Gonzalez measure out strains of E. coli as they begin their work in the lab.Dr. Shivas Amin, visiting professor of biology, is looking to change the essence of freshman biology labs at the University of St. Thomas. He is looking for student buy-in, that is, he wants students to become personally invested in the research they are doing. To facilitate this, Amin is doing something revolutionary – he is letting the students pick the research.

“When we started doing this lab two years ago, the instructors would bring protocols for the students and they would simply follow directions,” Amin said. “What I thought was that students needed to have more control over the  experiments so they would have some personal investment in the lab.”

Students are encouraged to come up with their own ideas and experiments in the labs. Then, they present their experiment to their classmates who vote on one experiment. The class then spends two weeks developing those experiments and gathering data.

The idea is, if students have creative input into the work they are actually doing, the effort and interest they place on the project will increase.

Savannah Gonzalez, freshman biology major, said the opportunity to have a say in the research she was working on was liberating.

“It was freeing because we were given the opportunity to come up with our own hypothesis on the project and were not told what to think,” Gonzalez said. “Dr. Amin said in the past students were only given a limited selection of projects and then they could not even implement them completely. We got to see it live in front of us and not just on paper and what may have happened in theory.”

Still, there is structure. Using the model organism, E. coli, students can develop their own experiments. The learning curve in using E. coli is low and students can learn the technique needed to handle it in 5 to 10 minutes. With the help of collaborators from the Baylor College of Medicine, students can use special E. coli that are missing particular genes that the students can use for their research.

“It is kind of a fortuitous collaboration that we have,” Amin said. “They give us different strains that the students ask for; the students work with it, generate data and do experiments. It is working really well.”

On Dec. 3, Dr. Amin organized and hosted the first annual Biology Student Showcase in which all first semester General Biology freshmen presented their research projects completed during the fall semester. The showcase presentations provided background on the strains of E. coli being used, discussed the rational behind the experiments, explained the methodology of the experimentation and looked at the results, comparing them to similar experiments.

“I am very glad to have the opportunity to formulate and implement the experiment,” Gonzalez said. “I think it really helped me understand what was going on in the lab.”

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