I took a left turn at ‘make a video’

One of last week’s assignments was to make a video tutorial/introduction/something. I balked, and I will get it done, but I’m not ready to right now, unless  you’re looking for a watermelon explosion. Instead I decided to take my current ‘bricks & mortar’ class a little more online. I already use a wiki in my class as their place to document their work. We took a couple of days to focus on using the wiki and through collaborative work to better document what they learned during the first half of their semester. We have piles of sequenced viruses and each has lots of protein coding genes. The big question in our work is “what do all these genes do”?  Most of these genes have unknown function. They made a giant table of every gene for which they think they found some functional information through a variety of bioinformatics tools. Basically this was taking information buried in a software, and making it web-accessible and in one place. I did ask them to write something on their own wikis about one protein they want to work further on, but those posts didn’t go to any depth or encourage much reflection. So, while we haven’t done very well on the reflective side of learning, we did very well on the science side of things.

This is the jumping off point for a new activity we are starting on Monday, a sort-of March Madness for people who care about deciphering the functions of proteins (yep!). We are joining CACAO, an inter-university competition to declare The Function of a set of proteins through a rigorous set of criteria. The competition is set up on a wiki run by a scientist at Texas A&M. Between now and the end of the semester, we will go through several ‘innings’ of 1) examining proteins, their sequences, and the literature  to declare functions based on evidence and then 2) challenging declarations by students in similar classes at two other universities. There is a scoreboard where students earn points for their declarations and challenges. We don’t start until Monday and we’re already stirring up some good trash talk and competition = student engagement. [This competition could really use some of the social media tools we’ve tried out to encourage social interaction and science interaction between our students.]

Today, a professor from Texas A&M trained my students by skype in how to participate in CACAO. There were a couple “this guy is in Texas?” comments in the beginning, which I thought was pretty funny because 20-somethings shouldn’t be fazed by distance and a skype call into their classroom. They got to hear about JMU and University of Maryland Baltimore County students participating, and our trainer even made some custom examples for them related to their work. It was definitely better to use some (not even fancy) technology to bring another scientist into the classroom to broaden their experience and exposure. I believe the rest of the communication will be asychronous, so I’ll have to see if there are other ways I can encourage sychronous on-line interaction with JMU and UMBC students and faculty while we’re all going through this project together.

The outcomes for the students are that they know they are doing real work and the work they are doing is bigger than them. They learn to dig into papers and find solid evidence for an argument. They are making real contributions to science because the functions that are approved are entered into public databases that are used by scientists all over the world. They are communicating with students at other universities who are doing similar work. And they have multiple chances to get the ‘right’ answer- for me this is the most important characteristic.

Anyway, something fun and not what you asked for, but I wouldn’t have jumped into CACAO so easily without #vcuOLE.

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