Accepted Proposal for NC-AETS
(North Central Regional Meeting of the
Association for the Education of Teachers in Science)

October 11-13, 2001 Madison, WI

Sam Donovan
Kathy Greeene
Beloit College
700 College St.
Beloit, WI  53511

Intended Audience: Secondary, College, Supervision, In-service

Session Title: Bioinformatics: The Analysis of Molecular Sequence Data Provides Rich Opportunities for Student Inquiry

Session Abstract: An introduction to the use of publicly available sequence data and analysis tools to create rich inquiry spaces for student investigations in to biological phenomena.

Proposal Summary:

One important aspect of supporting student inquiry is identifying data rich contexts that will support open-ended investigations. The publicly accessible molecular sequence databases represent a virtually limitless data resource for the development of inquiry opportunities. This session will describe our efforts over the last several years to bring a collection of research tools and data resource to undergraduate biology and pre-service teacher courses in order to promote meaningful inquiry.

Biology is quickly becoming an "information-driven" science. The ease with which biologists are able to collect and analyze DNA and amino acid sequence data is fundamentally changing both the questions they ask and the ways they go about answering those questions. As more and more biological research takes advantage of the publicly available molecular data it is important that the next generation of science teachers recognize the ways that these resources can be used to support student inquiry.

This session will describe both the general approach we have developed to introducing these resources to a pre-service teacher education audience and specific examples of the activities that we have used successfully in a variety of settings. The materials we have developed are built on two primary components; a three-step approach to the introduction of sequence analysis and a framework for creating an “inquiry space” that provides students with opportunities to gain research experience while providing a support structure to help them get started. The conference presentation will involve an introduction to the general approach (outlined below) and a demonstration of one of the specific implementations.

To introduce bioinformatics we begin with an activity that helps students recognize the need for sequence analysis. This activity asks them to work in groups to consider the implications of a series of scenarios such as the possible introduction of allergy causing proteins into food sources like corn based on genetic engineering. They work from their current understanding to identify questions about the science involved and how DNA sequence data may play a role in solving various problems. Next we use a small problem solving activity to orient students to the types of sequence data available and how various biological questions can be addressed by analyzing that data. Groups of students receive printed data to analyze by hand as they try to address the question that has been posed for them (often a forensics question). After working to compare raw sequence data they are provided with printouts of sequence alignments to interpret. After another cycle of analysis and interpretation we then provide a phylogenetic tree based on the differences between the sequences. We have found that this approach helps students understand the ways that the computer manipulations of data operate and how inferences can be drawn from patterns of relationship between the sequences. These first two steps help prepare students for a more open-ended inquiry involving the use of a computer to help manipulate and analyze their data. We structure the inquiry space (described below) so that students have a rich biological context within which they need to identify specific questions to be addressed, make decisions about which sequences to compare, and draw biological conclusions from the analyses they perform.

Our framework for creating an inquiry space grows out of the need to balance the seemingly infinite resources available in these large databases with the biology background that students bring to these inquiries. We think about inquiry spaces as the intersection of a set of biological concepts, a collection of appropriate data, and a set of analysis tools. By structuring inquiry spaces to incorporate particular biological ideas (e.g., transcription and translation) and providing a limited set of data and tools to work with we have found that students are able to participate in meaningful inquiry that involves developing research strategies, considering alternative ways to address the same question and building strong arguments from data.

To provide a context for these general approaches we will describe a series of activities we have used with a variety of audiences including science methods courses, introductory biology courses, in-service teacher professional development workshops and high school students. The activities follow the general structure outlined above in the context of understanding how the HIV virus changes over time. In the small problem solving activity we consider the case of the Florida dentist who was charged with spreading HIV to several of his patients. Students work with sequence data from a variety of patients and local controls to understand how similarities between sequences can be used to infer recent ancestry. For the more open-ended inquiry students were introduced to a data set which includes sequences drawn from several patients over time. They are able to compare rates of sequence change within and between patients and correlate those changes to changes in disease status.

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