Transforming Microbiology Education

April 4, 2017

In the last 40 years, major educational movements such as Writing across the Curriculum, Quantitative Reasoning, and Science as a Way of Knowing have sought to develop students’ competencies in writing, analyzing, predicting, and problem solving using basic skills development. The writing movement helps students learn through argument and expression. The quantitative movement helped students’ understanding of logic and pattern recognition, and science as a way of knowing helped students demonstrate knowledge of hypothesis design and testing. The ubiquitous nature of microorganisms, their growth and metabolic uniqueness, and modern science’s need to harness these life forms to solve global challenges of the future make Microbes as a Way of Solving Global Challenges a transformational concept in education.

This trend will change science content in middle and high school as well as college, putting forth a microbial-centric curriculum. Microbial content will begin early with why good hygiene is important and continue to appreciating the impact of microorganisms in human health (e.g., microbiomes, antibiotics, and vaccines) and food production (e.g., bread, yogurt, and cheese). In later grades, with deeper understanding of biology and chemistry, students will recognize that the growth and survival rate of microorganisms in a given environment depends upon the microbes’ unique metabolic pathways and that cell genomes can be manipulated to alter their function. Students will learn that microorganisms can, in fact, work with both human and nonhuman hosts in beneficial and harmful ways. Students’ new understanding of microbial genetics, physiology, and diversity, coupled with emerging technologies, will help them address global problems such as food shortages, environmental wastelands, finite natural resources, and public health challenges.

Adding to the curricular redevelopment, a second transformational trend will be an unprecedented need for authoritative, peer-reviewed and curated content and courses. Having information available anytime, nearly anywhere in the world, and for almost anyone interested in learning will change the way learners approach and judge content, acquire new knowledge, and develop skills through virtual learning spaces and remote mentors. Highly motivated students will rely heavily on self-directed learning, while less-motivated students will be prompted by remote coaches, peer mentors, and discussion leaders throughout their experience. With an abundance of highly diverse content and remote coaches and mentors, acquisition of new information will become more focused and learning will become more efficient. While a strong background in introductory science subjects as described above will remain important, learners will choose topics to deepen understanding and feed their curiosity, opening new lines of inquiry.

ASM is enabling these transformations. The ASM MicrobeLibrary amasses peer-reviewed, visually appealing and stunning images, multimedia programs and laboratory protocols to raise awareness and understanding about the microbial world. The ASM Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education provides educators peer reviewed, evidence-based resources for teaching and learning, including engaging classroom and laboratory activities, real-world field experiences, and resources shown to increase student understanding and retention.

The final transformation trend is the increasing diversity of end users for content and learning. The current vision for today’s learner is an image of 18 to 25 year olds, having experienced their first 15 years of learning in traditional classes dutifully listening to professors on stage or on camera, who shared knowledge through lectures and evaluated learning through tests. The future classroom space convenes “learners” of all ages, all cultures, all levels of educational preparedness, from different work and personal experiences, and with vastly different needs to learn, into a single communal space where learning is interactive, iterative, and facilitated by experts, coaches, and peers. All learners are responsible for their own learning and must manage their learning. New approaches to assess learning (such as badges) and demonstrate credentials (accumulation of badges) will be identified. Demonstration of ones’ understanding and proficiency will help foster entry, re-entry, and transitional moving in the workplace or in ones’ personal space for lifelong learning.

ASM plays a strong leadership role in fostering diversity in the microbial sciences. ASM supports the ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE) and for the previous 25 years supported all undergraduate educators regardless of their home institution, student population, academic training, or scientific expertise.

Whether you are a new or veteran faculty member, a community college or doctoral institution faculty member, a microbiologist, physiologist or geneticist, or a faculty member for health sciences students or microbial science majors, ASMCUE is the “go to” place for practical tips or resources adaptable for classes ranging from 15 to 700 students.

The second example where ASM promotes diversity is through the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. Throughout its 16-year history, ABRCMS has enabled students of different ages, from varying geographic locations, and from populations traditionally underrepresented in science, to present their individual research, receive expert feedback, and participate in tailored professional development activities. Students benefit in many ways and increase their belief that they have the confidence and power to become scientists and that the science community is calling them to pursue scientific careers. Finally, the ASM Fellowships attest to ASM’s commitment to diversity. Two fellowships seek to advance students underserved in science to succeed through baccalaureate or doctoral training.

The global education community must continue to implement best teaching and mentoring practices to ensure a scientifically diverse community. Although government agencies, scientific societies, and institutions of higher education are doing important work to increase diversity in science, much work is needed. The ASM is at the forefront of change in curriculum, faculty and student development, and technology enabled education. Due to the ubiquitous nature of microorganisms and their influence on us daily, microbial science education is positioned to produce future scientists harnessing the power of microorganisms to solve grand global challenges.

This article first appeared in ASM’s Microcosm magazine. Microcosm is a benefit of ASM membership. Not a member? Signing up is quick and easy

Author: Amy Chang

Amy Chang
Amy L. Chang is the education director of the American Society for Microbiology. She is active in the advancement of students, educators and researchers as well as in diversity in science and medicine. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.