Utilizing a project-based learning strategy to integrate actual research into the classroom

Glen Borchert and Oscar Lopez
Department of Biology, University of South Alabama

Students and researchers seldom achieve authorship prior to entering a graduate-level program. Excitingly, at the University of South Alabama, a new computational genomics course is successfully incorporating undergraduates into relevant genetic research and producing student authorships on peer reviewed publications. Rapid technological advances continue to shape the field of genetics and produce massive amounts of largely untapped genetic information.  Unfortunately, many biologists and graduates of related fields feel impeded by their own perceived computational limitations. Utilizing the principle online resources employed today, this novel “bioinformatics for non-programmers” course provides advanced undergraduate students with a solid computational foundation as well as the competency to independently evaluate emerging resources in the future. Utilizing a project-based learning strategy, this course equips students with a novel informatics toolset and teaches them how to work independently and in small groups to complete a class-wide research analysis.After three semesters this course has resulted in 45 student authorships on three distinct manuscripts. These papers reflect months of collaborative research and demonstrate that it is possible to integrate student learning with actual research.