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Citadel News Service
26 Dec 2007

A class without books

What happens when a professor abandons the traditional method of teaching? When there is no textbook? When the structure of the class is determined by new research that will be undertaken for the first time in this class?

“In this class we became scientists, not merely science students. We thought, experimented, researched, presented, discussed, and brainstormed as true scientific beings as opposed to the traditional classroom setting where information is simply presented and the student’s recall is tested.”

—Ross Garner, ’06

Professor Alix Darden gives us a glimpse inside her molecular biology laboratory. How do you take students who are interested in science and make scientists out of them? Many science courses have labs associated with them, but generally these are routine exercises that are done in that course every year with known results.

When I was hired by The Citadel in 1995, I was charged with developing a molecular biology program in which students could engage in hands-on, independent research projects. During independent research, students work one-on-one with a faculty member on a unique research project. It is considered a capstone course and is required in many programs. The benefits to the students include increased self-confidence, ability to work in teams, communication skills, critical thinking skills and problem solving.

"I can’t say we produced significant data as pertaining to our hypothesis, but what I can say is that everyone who was in that lab on Wednesday afternoons produced significant results contributing to the overall understanding each of us has for the world of research. There is only one way to cross the bridge from simple undergraduate students feeding on the information given to them by their professors to higher-level students taking an active role in their learning, and that is through courses like this one. All in all, after having completed this class and the atmosphere it placed us in, I feel that this is an experience all serious biology majors should undertake. There is knowledge gained and an understanding achieved of things that just aren’t learned in standard lecture-based classes."
—David Reames, ’02

With my other responsibilities as a faculty member, it is difficult to have more than two students in the lab at a time. Getting them trained and proficient in laboratory skills can take a while, so students are encouraged to make a long-term commitment. Their free time has to match my free time, which can be problematic. Additionally, students told me they wanted to be challenged to design their own experiments and work on unique research projects in their courses.

Using research as the foundation for Biol424, the molecular genetics course I teach, sounded like a way to expose more students to work on unique research projects and provide the unique learning that accompanies this type of work.

“I have checked your lab notebooks and looked at the DNA you made two weeks ago. I don’t think there will be enough for you to continue with your experiments, so you will need to repeat the lab you did two weeks ago. I have put all the reagents out, and since you just did the lab and wrote it down in your lab books, I know you can do it on your own—I will be across the hall in my office. None of you has it written perfectly in your lab books, but together you have all the information you need.”

When I leave the room, there is absolute silence, and then the students start talking to each other. “What do we do first?” “Hey, man, does anyone see the sodium acetate?” “Do you know what you are doing?” “I can’t believe she expects us to be experts at this already.” “How do I turn this on?” “What speed is the centrifuge set at?” “Let’s turn the radio on.” “How long did we centrifuge for?” “Can I throw out what is in this tube, or do I need to save it?” “Where is the ice machine?”

After initial hesitance and a lot of shuffling of papers, the students start talking to each other as they gain confidence. Within about 30 minutes I come back to check on them and the students are moving through the experiment, periodically conferring with each other to check a calculation or double check the protocol. There is a comfortable feeling in the lab of students who are in control and know what they are doing.

So how does one design a course in which students are engaged in unique research projects? Molecular genetics is an evolving course which is appropriate since the discipline is evolving. While needing to know the fundamental building blocks of a discipline, students are inherently more interested in the new cutting-edge developments. I must admit that what I find exciting about my discipline is the current explosion in research and the rapid advances we are making in our understanding of genetics at the molecular level.

Since I started teaching at The Citadel, the human genome has been sequenced in addition to the genomes of hundreds of other organisms. These discoveries have led to new ways to think about treating disease, new fields of genomics, proteomics, systems biology, bioinformatics and our understanding of how the human body works. In 1995, the estimated number of human genes was approximately 100,000. Now we know that we only have about 35,000. With this knowledge, our understanding of genes and genetic disease has also evolved. At the same time, the foundational science has not changed. James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 Nobel prize-winning model of the structure and replication of DNA has not changed. Our basic understanding of inheritance of genetic traits has not changed. And these are critically important foundational concepts that need to be recognized in order to understand and solve problems in today’s rapidly changing world of genetics.

“OK, Doc, we have finished the lab and cleaned up our stuff.”

“Did you put your DNA in your freezer box so we can finish the analysis next week and get the sequence?” I ask them.

The two students look at each other in distress. “We threw the samples out after we did the spectrophotometer analysis! We forgot that we were supposed to save those samples to work with next week. What trash can did you through your samples in? Let’s see if we can find them?”

Samples are found that are most likely their samples, but because they had not labeled them well, they cannot be certain. They have to find time later in the week to come back and repeat the experiment—this time saving the samples.

“Can I do the lab on Monday afternoon? There is something I want to do Tuesday afternoon.”

The student comes in on Monday, does the experiment but does not get the results he is supposed to, so he ends up doing the lab on Tuesday after all.

“This class also taught me that a person needs to stay focused when in a research setting. It does not take much for you to get totally off course and have the experiment result in a failure. Going into lab tired, hungry, or even hyperactive can lead a person down the path of failure and cause that person to repeat lengthy and complicated experiments.”
—Eric Roberts, ’06 

“In today’s class we will use the computer to analyze your DNA and figure out which enzymes you can use to cut out regions of the DNA,” I say to the seven students taking molecular genetics.

Forty-five minutes later, the students have mastered the computer analysis.

“Now I want you to work as a group, and decide which regions of DNA you think should be cut out creating mutated DNA for analysis. Hurry up with this because class is almost over, and I need to know today what enzymes you want me to order for next week’s lab. It sometimes takes up to a week for enzymes to arrive after I have ordered them, and I want to be certain they arrive in time for next week’s lab.”

“You mean, you haven’t done this experiment yet?” a surprised student asks. “We get to choose how to design the experiment?”

The intuitive way to design the course was to use my research as the basis of the course and have students learn on a need-to-know basis. The course is taught every other year, so I have taught it four times using my research. Obviously, this means that each time I teach the course it will be different, since my research will have moved forward and the next group of students will study a different aspect of the project. There is no textbook for the course and rarely are there tests. There is a lot of reading of journal articles and a lot of exchanging of students’ thoughts and ideas, both in writing and presenting.

When looking at what the students accomplish in a course like this, it is important to remember that this is just one course of many that these students are taking. It meets six hours per week, three in lecture and three in lab, for a total of 14 weeks—a grand total of 84 hours, approximately 42 of which are spent in lab, roughly equating to one full-time work week. During this time, students have to learn the techniques they will be using and become proficient enough to get reliable data. One of the best things about the lab is that I can’t tell them the right answer. No one has done these experiments before. We interpret the data as a group.


"In this class, I actually enjoyed doing the work. In many cases, you had the opportunity to choose the area in which you wanted to learn, and not specifically what the professor made you learn…I learned that science is not exact, but more that you have to take what you get and build upon it. . . . Science is not the quest for your answer; it is the quest for the right answer."
—Scott Dowd, ’06

Since 2002, there has been an Annual Citadel Undergraduate Research Conference. One of the graded projects of the fall semester course requires the students to produce a poster discussing their research from the semester. Generally, the students elect to present their research posters at this conference, even though the course is over and they already have their grades. In 2004, four students submitted abstracts and were selected to present the research they had done in the class at the S.C. Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting, held at the College of Charleston that year. They had to give an oral presentation and answer questions about their work. They all found it a rewarding experience and after listening to other presentations by both students and faculty, realized they were doing significant work that interested other scientists. Additionally, two students co-authored a research paper published in the Gold Star Journal, the college’s scholarly magazine. These accomplishments speak highly of the quality work these students are consistently producing.

Many Citadel biology majors go on to careers in the sciences and professional biomedical fields and will need to be life-long learners able to evaluate, integrate and apply new research findings. The impact of this course on the students goes far beyond their learning of content and techniques.

Thomas Cech, past President of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Nobel laureate in chemistry, sums up this type of learning experience: “Hands-on research experiences, though inherently inefficient with respect to faculty effort per student, are strikingly effective in their impact on young people's lives.”

Classes like the research-based molecular genetics course provide this opportunity for Citadel students to lay the foundation for their scientific careers.


Story by Alix Darden, associate professor of biology. Reprinted from "The Citadel" magazine with permission.



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