Teach Undergraduates to Think Like Scientists

Aug. 1, 2016

Once students are attracted to the excitement of the microbial world, they need to understand the nature of science and develop scientific thinking skills. Introductory students often struggle with understanding the scientific method in complex and nuanced ways. Below is an activity from the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education (JMBE) to assist students in designing their own experiments within a lecture or lab classroom. By having students view a series of related images, they learn to generate hypotheses and well-designed experiments to test their hypotheses.   

Olimpo J. 2015. The biology experimental design challenge: an interactive approach to enhance students' understanding of scientific inquiry in the context of an introductory biology course. J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. 16(1):75-76

After engaging in this activity, faculty can draw upon the ASM Sample Questions in Microbiology and find a multiple-choice question to assess students' competency in scientific thinking. The question below assesses students' scientific thinking and is based upon nitrogen-fixing bacteria forming mutualistic relationships with bean plants.

Soil was collected from a fertile garden and sifted to remove roots and other large debris. Twenty pots were filled with the soil. Half the soil was used to fill ten pots without any additional treatment. The other half of the soil was autoclaved for 20 minutes at 121°C and then used to fill the remaining ten pots. Five seeds of the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, were planted in each of the twenty pots. No additional fertilizers were added to the pots. What is the most likely result if you measured shoot biomass in this experiment? 

A. The seeds planted in sterilized soil will have the greater shoot biomass

B. The seeds planted in untreated soil will have the greater shoot biomass

C. The seeds planted in both treatments will have similar shoot biomass measurements

D. There is not enough information to make a prediction 

To develop critical thinking and analytical skills, students need opportunities to apply newly acquired information to new situations. In this question, nitrogen-fixing bacteria and fungi form mutualistic relationships with plant roots. Both groups of microorganisms would be in fertile garden soil. During the autoclave process microorganisms are killed and unavailable to form symbiotic relationships with bean plants. However, untreated soil contains microorganisms to establish the relationships and provide additional resources to the bean plants. The correct answer is B and the question came from Jerry Kavouras who contributed to the publication.

The ASM Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Microbiology promotes students' ability to apply the process of science and seeks specific competencies:  

  • Demonstrate an ability to formulate hypotheses and design experiments based on the scientific method.
  • Analyze and interpret results from a variety of microbiological methods and apply these methods to analogous situations.

Frequently, faculty members face the challenge of incorporating emerging topics while covering a wide range of fundamentals in their courses. If you're facing the challenge of breadth versus depth, consider the new edition of Microbe, a textbook based upon the ASM Guidelines. The textbook illustrates the power of modern microbial sciences through compelling stories, case studies, and active learning experiences.

ASM resources are created by, with, and for microbiology educators at all levels. ASM volunteer opportunities span from serving on narrowly focused task committees (e.g. reviewers for abstracts, travel awards, fellowships, JMBE manuscripts, books, and multimedia resources) to planning workshops, courses, and national conferences. If you're interested in becoming involved, please contact the Education Department. We wish you a safe, engaging, and productive back-to-school season.


Author: Bethany Adamec

Bethany Adamec
Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.