Immunology Topics To Teach in Undergraduate Education

Feb. 19, 2021

The time spent by an instructor on a particular topic has a significant impact on student learning. What are the important topics in an undergraduate immunology classroom and how much time do instructors spend on these topics? For the immunology discipline, the enormity of identifying core concepts can be overwhelming. Therefore, as a first organizational initiative, a group of immunocentric educators (ImmunoReach) solicited feedback from instructors on the topics that they prioritize in immunology courses. The survey results from this descriptive study indicate that educators allocated most of their time to the adaptive immune system, innate immune system, host–pathogen interactions and molecular mechanisms of immunological response, and relatively less time on topics such as metabolism and evolution.

Aligning Immunology Topics With Vision and Change Core Concepts

The Vision and Change report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science calls upon undergraduate biology educators to shift away from content coverage and focus on concepts and competencies. The Vision and Change report identifies 5 core concepts for undergraduate biology education: 
  • Systems. 
  • Structure and function. 
  • Information flow, exchange and storage. 
  • Pathways and transformations for energy and storage. 
  • Evolution. 
The report also includes 6 core competencies:
  • Ability to apply the process of science.
  • Ability to use quantitative reasoning.
  • Ability to use modeling and simulation.
  • Ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science.
  • Ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines.
  • Ability to understand the relationship between science and society.
Our survey results indicate that the top 4 immunology topics that educators prioritize are: adaptive immune system, innate immune system, host–pathogen interactions and molecular mechanisms of immunological response. These topics align well with the first 3 core concepts: 1) systems 2) structure and function 3) information flow, exchange and storage. However, the time-prioritization of topics (metabolism and evolution) that primarily align with the fourth and the fifth core concept, lagged.

We also surveyed educators for relative importance of competencies, as identified in the Vision and Change report. Among competencies, the ability to apply the process of science scored as the most important competency, while the ability to use modeling and simulation scored as the least important.

Indeed, it would be daunting to cover all of these topics in a single course. However, topics such as metabolism and evolution also offer an opportunity to draw interdisciplinary connections between immunology/biochemistry or immunology/evolutionary biology/ecology. These topics are the foundation for rapidly emerging fields, such as immunometabolism and ecoimmunology, with tremendous application in cancer therapeutics and infectious disease modeling and management, respectively. These findings may reflect the prioritization of topics when constrained by time or, alternatively, an instructor’s discomfort with covering such niche areas.
How interdisciplinary immunology draws on other life sciences.
How interdisciplinary immunology draws on other life sciences.
Source: Sumali Pandey

It is also important to note that immunometabolism and evolution are not standard topic headings in common immunology textbooks, thereby highlighting the lack of instructor resources for these topics. This lack of coverage presents educators with an opportunity to be creative and adopt evidence-based pedagogical practices. For example, backward design can be used to create active-learning strategies that help to address clearly articulated concepts and learning outcomes. Active-learning strategies may result in decreased failure rates, increase student examination performance and can narrow the achievement gaps for underrepresented undergrads in STEM disciplines. Lastly, the ImmunoReach task force is currently working to generate peer-reviewed concepts and learning outcomes, aligned with Vision and Change core concepts, that would help facilitate adoption of backward design in immunology classrooms.

Remote Learning in an Immunology Classroom

Immunology is a content-heavy, evolving field, which makes “keeping up” difficult for instructors. One way to integrate newer, rapidly emerging topics in course content is to invite experts in niche topics as guest lecturers or seminar speakers. In the current pandemic, connecting via video conference has indeed shrunken the world tremendously, and instructors can invite a speaker from halfway across the world with the minimal cost of a computer and an internet connection. In addition, Cell Collective and Vensim offer excellent computational modeling-based platforms for integrating modeling, simulation and immunometabolism and infectious disease-based activities in the classroom.
Read the newest issue of the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, including Bruns H, Wisenden B, Vanniasinkam T, Taylor R, Elliott S, Sparks-Thissen R, Justement L, Pandey S. "Inside the undergraduate immunology classroom: current practices that provide a framework for curriculum consensus."

Author: Sumali Pandey, Ph.D.

Sumali Pandey, Ph.D.
Dr. Sumali Pandey is an associate professor in the Biosciences Department at Minnesota State University Moorhead.