A study published in Science (2012) suggested that the way toddlers learn is, qualitatively, not different from how scientists pursue their passions. Both groups frame hypothesis, do experiments, discard or accept hypotheses based on the results — all this without the kids being taught how science is done. How unfortunate that in the name of their education, this inherent tendency is systematically stifled; replacing curious minds with memorising automatons, rewarding and encouraging acquisition of facts over understanding concepts, rote learning over understanding, copying over research.
Though research is how science is done, it is frequently not the way science is taught. A recent workshop in the Research-Based Pedagogical Tools (RBPT) series, conducted for undergraduate teachers by Centre for Excellence in Science and Mathematics, IISER Pune, in collaboration with British Council of India, at Tezpur University, Assam; was a step in the direction of changing science teaching to resemble more the process of doing science. The trainers, who were all from Sheffield Hallam University UK, stressed that (in RBPT) students must do an activity by themselves to learn. “To start and get them going, you have to give them a good attractive context that is catchy ” said Julie, one of the trainers.
Teaching by this method, research is an integral component. The entire pedagogy should consist of 4 Rs: there should be a component of Research; which should get Refined along the way and the outcome of the learning exercise should be Reported. Students’ work should be Rewarded for the research component — by way of grades or equivalent. Students do an activity designed by the teacher to find about or understand a concept. The teacher’s role is more of a facilitator, helping students refine their research, to overcome glitches or obstacles in their investigations.
On the last day of the workshop, participants who have worked in groups to design a poster presenting their chosen topic in RBPT method presented them for discussions and criticisms, exchanging and suggesting new ideas among themselves. For this exercise, my group developed a plan for teaching an exercise in Bioinformatics — that of constructing phylogenetic trees (see figure). In the traditional lecturing method, this concept can seem rather abstract, or esoteric even. Therefore, following RBPT template, we would begin by giving students a context they can relate to — the SARS epidemic. The ultimate objective, the exercise for students, is to construct a phylogenetic tree to find the closest related known virus to SARS, so as to extract usable information to develop a vaccine. The first step for the students, the “hook,” is to let them familiarise themselves with epidemiological information of the last epidemic (top left). We also discussed possibilities for some students to perhaps enact a skit in class, highlighting basic biology of antigen-antibody interactions and the principle of vaccination, to further engross them in the topic, and develop their soft skills in the process.
To introduce them to the main concept, that of constructing phylogenetic trees for viruses, we could start by asking them to first work with DNA sequences of known vertebrate animals (right panel). This would help them to discover that phylogenetic tree actually reflects evolutionary relationships. Here we are beginning to Refine our research. Finally when the teacher feels that the students are confident about tree building, the students would try it with actual viral sequences drawn from the internet databases and build a phylogenetic tree to find out the next closely related virus. That’s our pivotal question. The answer that they obtain should then be used to gain knowledge about the SARS itself which could help in the development of vaccine. This brings the exercise to full circle to the question with which we began.
A few days prior to the Tezpur workshop, a similar workshop had been conducted at IISER-Mohali by the same trainers. It was interesting to watch the response of the participants at both the workshops. It followed a pattern of initial dismissal, to re-thinking, to acceptance, and by the end of the workshop, active enthusiasm on their part; though many did worry about uncooperative management at their colleges.
All in all, participating in this workshop was quite a revelation for me! I returned to Bangalore thinking how I could kindle the inherent ‘curiosity of toddlers’ in my undergraduate students. For a set of bioinformatics practicals I teach, I am currently engaged in amalgamating these experiments to design a workflow based on this RBPT approach. Students will use this workflow to solve a problem that appeals to them, and of course, learning about the basic concepts in Bioinformatics along the way.