Category Archives: bioinformatics

Faculty Programs from the ASM

The ASM Education Department offers professional development institutes that aim to improve science teaching. I first heard about these “Bioinformatics Institutes” for educators at the ASMCUE 2008 meeting. The official tag line for this conference for undergraduate educators was “Celebrating 15 years of Teaching Excellence,” however, the subtext that emerged for me was the sorry state of teaching bioinformatics at the university/college level. There are some bright spots, but across the board, educators are struggling with how to get bioinformatics into their curricula. Thus, the need for these workshops that offer just in time training for instructors.

The Summer Bioinformatics Institute, Enhancing the Undergraduate Curriculum through Bioinformatics, aims to meet the need for more undergraduate faculty in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines to understand, interpret, and use molecular sequence information to solve problems. The program features the analysis of microbial genomes, molecular sequences, and structural data, providing a framework for developing classroom activities and research projects for undergraduate students.

Check out for more information.

Programs like this one offer great opportunities but have limited spots available. A complementary solution would be for a small groups of faculty to come together and develop portable training programs that deal with bioinformatics content as well as how to teach bioinformatics that could be offered locally at multiple institutions.

A common set of guiding principals about “What to teach?” could be very useful for this kind of “train the trainers” type of endeavor. I’ll be following the outcomes of this Workshop on Computational Education for Scientists with much interest as it deals with that very question.

The Digital Disconnect

You’ve got your popcorn. You’ve found a seat. The rustling of cell phones coming out of pockets begins. If you miss this opportunity, you’ll be faced with burning glares. “Turn off your cell phone or die!” It’s become part of our culture to “power down” at the movies. But even that norm is shifting. Most young people I know switch their phones to silent and continue to text each other as the movie plays. When Monday rolls around should we really be asking our students to “power down” before going to school?

Young students today are asking, “Why can’t we learn the way we live?”

The theme for this year’s e-Strategy Townhall conference at UBC is “Here and Virtually There – UBC and the Digital Generation.” I believe that incorporating technology into educational initiatives goes beyond engagement for students. This means that the students role is shifting to participating in and even producing their own educational experience. The role of educator is also shifting. Educators must become facilitators for learning – willing to learn on the fly – and coach students on how to navigate through their own educational experience using technology.

The ideas presented during a panel about the “digital disconnect” and the role of educators as coaches particularly resonated with me. The panel was a featured session at the e-Strategy Townhall entitled, “Network Learning – Seeing Through the Clouds”. This e-Stategy mini-conference is hard to describe. It’s a group of educators, IT professionals, interested tech-savy folk at the University who come together to talk about how to better incorporate technology into the educational experience. I’ve presented to this audience before about bioinformatics resources available to researchers and educators.

Today’s panel included a video conference with Julie Evans – CEO of Project Tomorrow from Irvine California responsible for the Speak-up Survey that carrys out focus groups with grade school kids. She made the point that students “power down” for going to school. School life is not at all like the technology rich like that they live at home. She also made the point that students are asking, “Why can’t we learn the way we live?”

Another virtual panelist was Peter Arthur – Director, Centre for Teaching & Learning, UBC Okanagon. He countered with the comments that, “Students are not all ready.” He worries that for students currently in undergraduate communities, information literacy is still coming. Back to Julie’s data from the grade school age kids. Her findings indicate that the most desired technology is a laptop that students can take home.

For me, it’s all about how we can making learning relevant. An interesting discussion about how to “open up” to these ideas ensued. We need to let students explore, support skill development, and provide support for students putting content online (example, wikipedia articles). Gaming, simulations, animations all can be used to develop problem solving skills. Mechanisms for celebrating and disseminating student successes and the knowledge bases they create needs to be supported.

Some of the comments that resonated with me the most were regarding the Coach-Teacher relationship. In the university environment we must begin to embrace this new role for teachers, as coaches, facilitators, and mentors. This means that as educators we need to be on top of the latest technology and feel comfortable with learning things as we go. David Wiley, Director, Centre for Open & Sustainable Learning, Utah State University made the point that students have become “free agent learners” going outside their normal learning environments to find information.

To participate in this new cooperative style learning process, we must be willing to push our own boundaries and become coaches to these free agents. I’ve always believe that coaching is a big part of the educational experience but with the pervasiveness of technology this role is becoming even more important. Accepting this challenge offers an exciting way forward for me as an educator.

Educational Column at PLoS Computational Biology

This editorial entitled, “Moving Education Forward” was featured in January 2007 issue of the open access journal, PLoS Computational Biology. The education column (also called the “Feature Tutorial”) of PLoS Comp Biol offers a unique venue for publishing and distributing bioinformatics educational resources.

If you have prepared and presented a tutorial for an oral presentation, consider submitting it to PLoS Computational Biology.

Applied Workshops in Bioinformatics Project

From 2004-2006,I obtained two years of funding from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) at the University of British Columbia to embark on a bioinformatics curricula development pilot project. Through the delivery of hands-on computer based workshops this project entitled, “Applied Workshops in Bioinformatics – Enabling Students to Use Bioinformatics” developed a set of teaching materials that can be adapted for use in the undergraduate classroom.

Here is a screen shot from the website that we put together for this project:

Screenshot of UBiC education page