Adding Relevance to a Biology Lab Experience With Plastic Waste and Social Media

Find out how guest blogger Justin Shaffer used the theme of plastic waste to introduce his students to laboratory methods and data analysis skills

Justin Shaffer · May, 2023

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As we all know, by making our course content more relevant – to our daily lives, to our local communities, to the global society, or to pop culture – students are able to connect to the course material more easily and thus get more engaged in the learning process. In this spirit, the National Center for Case Study Teaching in the Sciences offers almost 1,000 case studies in a variety of STEM disciplines that explicitly make the connection between real-world issues and the scientific content that is being taught. You can find some on human health and disease, environmental disasters, athletes and sports, bread baking, and a fight between a scorpion and a mouse (spoiler alert: the mouse wins).

Case studies such as these can be applied to typical lecture courses, but what about lab courses? Ideally, lab experiments in biology, chemistry, and physics have some connection or relevance to the real world, but oftentimes these labs are “cookbook” in style and just give the facts of the experiment without making the experiment click with the students. After having taught human anatomy and introductory biology labs for 10 years, I have seen a variety of labs in both buckets.

However, this summer in May 2023, I have the opportunity to create an extremely relevant and connected lab experience for students here at the Colorado School of Mines. We have a brand-new, fast-growing course on campus, Quantitative Biosciences and Engineering (QBE), which is similar to a typical four-year biology degree in biological concepts but then we kick it up a notch by requiring math up through and including differential equations, data analytics and programming with Python, and entrepreneurship. Another unique feature of our program is our summer field session course, which is a three-week, 40+ hour a week lab-based course that simulates a real-world work experience.

Our Plan for Creating a Timely, Relevant, and Engaging Lab Course

With relevance in mind, my co-instructor John Spear and I are going to use the theme of plastic waste to introduce our students to laboratory methods and data analysis skills. Plastic waste is a major problem and traditional recycling efforts often fall short, so we need to think of new ways to tackle plastic waste and recycling. In this course, we are going to explore two biological approaches that have promise to address this global issue.

  1. First, our students will collect environmental soil and water samples from a mine in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and will be using genomic sequencing methods to explore bacterial species which might be able to “munch” on plastic.
  2. Second, with the help of Gregg Beckham at the National Renewable Energy Lab, our students will be designing and producing mutant recombinant enzymes in an attempt to engineer them to be more effective at degrading plastics. Both of these projects are real-world applications of students’ biological and technical skill sets, and both directly relate to the plastic waste issue that the world is facing.

But we need to do more than just make the connection between the course content and a global issue. We need to have students talk about it and share it with the tools that they are used to using. To do this, over the course of the three weeks, students will take pictures, record videos, and interview themselves and each other (think of a super nerdy biotech version of the hit sitcom The Office) and stitch these together into a brief 4 to 5-minute video that they can share with the social media network of their choice. Full disclosure: I don’t have a TikTok account, nor do I want one, so the students are on their own if they decide to post there. There are only two rules with this assignment: have fun and no PowerPoint!

Relevance They Can Use to Communicate with Family, Friends, and Future Students

Not only will the students be taking videos of their lab experience, but most likely when they are walking around campus or near our local creek, they will spot a plastic bottle or two on the ground that they can record and comment on. This assignment will give students an opportunity to document their lab experience in an accessible way and will allow them to share with their family and friends what kept them so darn busy for three weeks in the summer. The videos will also give us, from the program-perspective, a wonderful resource to share with future QBE students and to use for outreach to attract new students into our program.

This is just one specific example of bringing explicit relevance to a biology laboratory course, but there are many ways to bring relevance to any course that you might be teaching. One simple way to do this is to search the news for some keywords from a given lesson in your course and to see what stories are out there that tie into what you are going to be teaching. Or, you could consider using resources such as the National Center for Case Study Teaching in the Sciences that I mentioned above as a way to get inspired and to download actual lesson plans and materials that you can directly use in your course. In another more involved approach, you may be able to reach out to local companies, non-profits, or government organisations to explore potential tie-ins to your course material.

No matter what approach you take, it is worth the time to add more relevance to your courses. Not only will students be more engaged, but you as an instructor will be engaged and refreshed, as I can certainly attest to. You’ll have more fun, as will your students, and I bet you’ll learn some new things too.

Justin Shaffer is a Teaching Associate Professor in Quantitative Biosciences and Engineering and Chemical and Biological Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He is also the founder of Recombinant Education where he provides professional development on course design and evidence-based teaching strategies for faculty, postdocs, and graduate students.