By Ayaka Hasegawa, '19
“Be a Vulcan.”
This is a phrase associate professor of biology Amy Treonis often says in her Microbial Ecology class, offered every three years.
“Vulcans from Star Trek are objective and rational and unbiased in their thinking which is the opposite of human beings,” Treonis elaborated. “Microbes are not necessarily the kind of organisms that we’re attracted to as humans. To get into studying them, we have to suspend our bias towards the visible world and be a Vulcan.”
In other words, Treonis emphasized the importance of objectivity especially when studying microbes because they may not sound as interesting as “koala bears or dolphins,” but they still have “equal merit in the world.” Thus, being a Vulcan allows students to look at microbes in an unbiased way.
This idea of objectivity was important, especially for the students’ semester-long group research project. Every couple of weeks, they had the opportunity to go to Richmond city's Reedy Creek to examine the stream's health. This community-based learning was integrated into the curriculum for the first time this year.
Through this research, students got involved with an environmental issue that existed between the city of Richmond and the Reedy Creek Coalition, a volunteer organization committed to restoring the health of the creek. The organization is fighting a proposed restoration of Reedy Creek.
“One of many problems with the Reedy Creek [restoration] project is that the proposed site is downstream from a concrete channel that, when it rains, collects and funnels a large amount of stormwater into the site,” Treonis explained. “During a large rain event, water violently floods through, which might make the soils and any new trees and plants that are put in after the restoration vulnerable to being washed away before they’ve had a chance to firmly establish. So, the site is risky. If the plants fail to establish, they will have to be replaced, which is costly.”
Students closely followed the issue and, through their visits, they saw that the coalition was working to protect the creek. Furthermore, they had the opportunity to meet and talk to local people who are passionate about Reedy Creek. Here, Treonis's Vulcan mindset came into play; while students may have formed their own opinions on the restoration issue, especially after close interactions with residents, they had to remain unbiased when it came to their research.
With the funding the class received from the biology department and its participation of AREM (Authentic Research Experience in Microbiology), an NSF-funded project at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, students sent in their filtered and extracted DNA from their water or sediment samples to a processing company called Mr. DNA. It performed the sequencing analyses and submitted back the data, which the students then analyzed.
This research allowed students to not only get the academic experience but also connect it to an issue in the community and interact with local residents, going well beyond traditional classroom learning.
With the introduction of community-based learning, Treonis noticed that students’ level of investment in the research project is higher than it has ever been. They were more engaged and motivated as they designed their own research.
Spencer Stokes, ’17, a biology major interested in pursuing microbial ecology, emphasized that one of the great aspects of this course is its independent nature. With little structure or specific instructions, students had the freedom to create their own research and investigate on their own with their groups. This hands-off teaching style enabled students to think and explore, and get real research experience, reflecting “best practices in science pedagogy,” as stated by Treonis.
At the end of the class, students presented their findings through a presentation to their fellow students and Treonis, as well as members of the Reedy Creek Coalition, retired scientists, and concerned residents affected by the city’s proposed restoration. This gave students a chance to practice their communication skills, which are essential in the science field.
“Communicating science to the public is difficult,” Stokes commented. “It is only relevant if non-scientific people can understand it.”
Treonis agreed that the community connection extends the reach of scientific research. “I think the community-based aspect of the course helped motivate my students and also helped them to see how science connects with a real-world problem,” she said.