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Transforming Undergraduate Science Education: Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Education (CUBE)

Arunan M C

While you are reading the post, we are in the thick of the second phase of CUBE (Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Education). The first phase started last summer (2012), at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education (HBCSE), TIFR with 18 students (from 4 colleges) most of them 1st and 2nd year undergraduates. With 12 of them as student-mentors, we had the CUBE Diwali (2012) session with another 15 students (from 4 colleges). By this time, the CUBE Summer (2012) interns had already set up small labs with Simple Model Organisms in their respective colleges (that was the mandate given to them while enrolling). This was made possible through the teachers of these colleges who were the first contacts we had made and who were instrumental in sending the students to the CUBE orientation workshops. Getting teachers to remain on the sideline of sorts, was indeed a crafty stratagem, for, it always looked as if students were central to all what happened in CUBE. However, teacher is the king-pin of the CUBE program and most of these teachers were directly known to us earlier or were recommended by our immediate teacher-friends from elsewhere.

A background to this piece: 

We would like to refer to an earlier article titled University-Institute Interactions: How will it Improve Undergraduate Biology Training in India?

To quote: potential scientists should be tapped at an early age onwards, from the academic hinterlands spread across the country.” The above article referred to programs like The Get Involved in Biology Series’ (GIBS) initiated by wikilabs at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai, Season Watch (NCBS, Bengaluru) that are expected to functionally network students, teachers and researchers across the country through engaging in collaborative research in undergraduate biology. Another piece, Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Research (CUBE)’ by Athulaprabha Murthi of the Indian Bioscience team also had referred to the CUBE experience.

The present article is a takeoff from both these articles and is a narrative of an ongoing effort to functionally network the 26,000 undergraduate colleges in India. The functional connectivity is proposed to be achieved by providing research experiences to undergraduates by means of simple model systems based research. The aim is to transform college labs into contemporary, open-ended, inquiry-driven and collaborative research laboratories so that the biology we teach reflects the biology we do. We propose that linking the synergistic communities of teaching and research in biology or any discipline will empower the teachers who are the mainstay of the Indian education system. The network that CUBE envisages will facilitate resource sharing among the members so that scarcity of any resource for a group/​individual is an opportunity to invoke the entire network to pitch in and provide.

The Biology we teach should authentically reflect the biology we do1:

In the current scenario of the undergraduate education, colleges and research centres work in isolation with each other. It is not uncommon that individuals within the same institute too do not collaborate and communicate, unlike in the west. Moreover, what goes on in the name of college laboratories is largely based on cookbook recipes. Thus what we witness is non-active functional linkages’ amongst colleges and between the colleges and the research centres. As a result, a majority of the undergraduates entering universities remain unmotivated or come away with only a traditional, descriptive model of biology.

Hence, with a focus to remedy this situation we initiated the first phase of the collaborative model in the summer of 2012. This was a 5‑week hands-on research experience based on Simple Model Systems’, like daphnia, drosophila, snails, earthworms and crows. Operating on the no-selection criterion, we had a total of 18 students in the first phase from 4 different colleges in Mumbai and suburbs. Not only the diversity of the colleges (From St Xavier’s College in south Mumbai to much unassuming colleges of the far off suburbs of the Metropolitan Mumbai, like Ulhasnagar and Kalyan), but also the sub-disciplinary diversity of the participants proved to be a great asset for our model of collaboration. With the short-term objective of maintaining these inexpensive, simple model systems, the participants pursued some interesting and sophisticated, front-line research questions on the molecular basis of learning and memory, on epigenetics, regeneration, decision-making, biological rhythms etc.

What happened next is indeed more unconventional. This model of undergraduate research was not just an apprenticeship model’ in which students were trained in the course of a one-off workshop; it rather had a cascade effect: more colleges were continuously being roped in. Each of the participating colleges was required to establish a simple model systems” based research lab in their respective centres and conduct similar types of workshop for their neighbourhood colleges, to initiate them into Collaborative Undergraduate Biology (CUB) Research. They were encouraged to submit research proposals, in collaboration with students of neighbourhood colleges (and with their respective teachers as CUBE Teacher Fellows) for the Obaid Siddiqi CUB Research Start-Up Award/​Grant, a small start-up grant to defray initial expenses to establish model systems. As mentioned earlier, the model systems and the techniques introduced are extremely inexpensive and yet raise sophisticated questions. Developing newer model systems has also been part of the CUB Research program in these centres.

The student mentors were able to conduct CUBE workshops for students of neighbourhood colleges not only during the two weeks of Diwali holidays, but also for an intense 6 days during X’mas vacation. One of the student interns of this 6 days CUBE X’mas, is engaged in developing fire-flies as a model system for studying urban ecology.

Currently, he is developing soil nematode culture to feed firefly larvae and is goading a few newcomers to maintain C. elegans. A deviant means to pick up the powerful model system like C.elegans, indeed!

How is it possible to answer questions in the frontiers of biology using simple, inexpensive model systems and techniques? To give readers a flavour of what students has to say in this regard:

.…before coming to this programme, we had a notion that complex biology research requires a lot of sophisticated machines, techniques, etc. We never thought that simple organisms could give insight into very deep research areas. After this programme, we have realised that research doesn’t necessarily require fancy equipments and that relevant questions can do the trick.”

The CUBE program, I thought would be full of experiments like we do in our college. But when I saw the lab at the Homi Bhabha Centre, it was something very different. How simple can a lab be? That was my first question when I saw the CUBE lab. No fancy stuff in the lab but, then, there were high level talks and discussions while using simple stuff that we were using.”

The undergraduate research experience should form a rich learning ecology with student-centric features. The typical features of such an ecology are that it is open-ended, interactive, inquiry-driven, collaborative and context-bound. Such an experience will have high levels of student-student and student-faculty interactions, ready connections of the subject matter to topics of student interest and learning that reflects aspects of scientific inquiry and evidence-based thinking.

Moreover, providing undergraduate research experience has been acknowledged as a powerful means of restructuring undergraduate biology practice as well as teaching in many countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and some countries in Australasia and has been discussed in several policy documents like the Vision and Change, NRC, Kellog’s commission, Boyer’s commission, etc. (Vision and Change- A Call to Action, ibid)

We also realize that for any such transformation, it is very important that there are dependable agents who ensure that the reforms get implemented and that these change agents’ are made an integral part of the process. Unreservedly, we regard that teachers are the key agents of change and hence it is important that the gap between the communities of teachers and researchers is bridged by linking the two in ways that will help to bring the processes of research into teaching and also help teachers to build a research profile. Further, a community of biology educators/​researchers would be built who are willing to integrate evidence-based practices into their teaching.

An example of how optimistic one participant student is of this transformation:

Our Education system has hyper polarized our teachers; we need to have this type of workshop to make them depolarized. We meet many teachers with low threshold which will definitely fire in coming days and the network will work smoothly.”

CUBE model of learning is thus built upon communities of practice” where teachers, researchers and students are socialized into the practice of research communities through active and sustained l engagement and collaboration. Membership in the community forms identity that translates into competence.

Platforms like the online portal provide a networked learning environment that enables learners to get entry into a common database that can be browsed, retrieved, linked and commented on by users for information on various model systems and at the same time with a prospect of being associative producers’ by partaking in the kind of research that could be done using these. Through such a networked collaboration with peers and teachers at the same time, learners both provide and receive process-related feedback that would guide the continued revision and restructuring of knowledge.

After all, Education is not something we do to our students; it must be something we do in collaboration with our students” — Brewer & Smith, 20111