Four INBRE Colleges and MDIBL Join Nationwide Program to Improve Science Education

Four Maine INBRE colleges and the MDI Biological Laboratory have joined an innovative, nation-wide program to change the way science is taught in college. As part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Science Education Alliance, freshmen at the University of Maine Honors College, the Southern Maine Community College, and the University of Maine at Fort Kent and at Machias will participate directly in scientific discovery when they take their first biology course.

The Science Education Alliance (SEA) provides faculty training and support for a new kind of college science course, which participating schools usually offer as a substitute for their introductory biology laboratory. First year students will participate in the National Genomics Research Initiative, isolating, purifying, characterizing and sequencing soil-dwelling bacterial viruses, called phage, from locally collected soil. Given the diversity of phage, each one is almost certain to be unique, and the students get to name their newly identified life form when the data is entered into an international genomics database.

“We are very pleased that students from Maine will have the opportunity to participate in a national research initiative, while benefiting from the tremendous training resources available at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute,” said Dr. Patricia Hand, Administrative Director of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. “This program dovetails perfectly with the goals of our statewide undergraduate training programs currently offered to students throughout Maine.”

The four Maine schools have joined the alliance as associate members, which means they will participate fully in the national network and their faculty will receive training free of charge from HHMI. The twenty-six schools joining the alliance in 2011 include Ivy League institutions, huge state universities, and small regional colleges.

The faculty and schools involved become part of a national network, and new schools are partnered with ones that have already instituted the new course. The U Maine Honors College will be mentored by the University of Colorado, where Tom Cech, Nobel Laureate, is Distinguished Professor. Dr. Cech is also former president of HHMI and a trustee of the MDI Biological Laboratory.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Maine students,” Dr. Cech says. “Both HHMI and MDIBL are committed to finding new models for science education, where students realize that science is an ongoing process, not a static body of facts. Revamping science courses to ignite that spark of excitement is a critical part of keeping science dynamic and relevant.”

The opportunity to apply for membership in the Science Educational Alliance was offered to Maine institutions participating in the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Infrastructure (INBRE), a state-wide coalition funded by the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health, and led by the MDI Biological Laboratory. The goal of the INBRE program is to enhance biomedical research capacity and competitiveness in Maine by expanding student training opportunities, supporting infrastructure improvements, and funding scientific research.

The MDI Biological Laboratory offers hands-on research experience to students from Maine INBRE institutions through short, intensive courses and in summer fellowships. HHMI invited MDIBL faculty to participate in the training for the new course. “The Hughes Institute is curious about our short-course model,” says Charles Wray, Ph.D., Director of Scientific Resources who attended the training session, “and we’re interested in how this full-year course works. HHMI really sees this as a network, and a learning experience for all involved. We’ll be seeing how we can apply what we learn to other types of courses, too.”

Tuajuanda Jordan, Ph.D., Director of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance, is planning to attend INBRE’s annual gathering of Maine researchers and students held at MDIBL on April 15 and 16. The Maine Biological and Medical Sciences Symposium will offer another opportunity to network and share ideas about innovation in science education.

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