Commentary: Innovation in the biochemistry/molecular biology laboratory


The special series on Innovation in the Biochemistry/Molecular Biology Lab was launched in 2009 with the goal of providing examples of modern lab activities designed around active learning that have been successfully piloted at the authors' institutions. Each year we have chosen a set of articles—sometimes around a specific theme, sometimes more general—that exemplify creative approaches to the undergraduate laboratory and introduce current topics.

In today's laboratory learning environment, active learning techniques with greater student design of experimental direction are being implemented with resulting increases in student outcomes in terms of performance, satisfaction, and independent learning (described in ref. [1]; one of many published examples illustrated in ref. [2]). More frequently these types of open-ended labs are being associated with areas of active research related to faculty scholarship (examples from recent Innovation series include refs. [3, 4]).

One aspect of laboratory work that has not changed over time is the need for careful record keeping, and one goal of the teaching lab is to help students develop skills in this area. A survey of chemistry faculty at over 600 institutions revealed that, among the few essential goals for the teaching lab was “Learning to keep a proper laboratory notebook,” and that the importance of this item increased for advanced-level courses [5]. However, the specifics of implementation of this goal depend on the needs of the students and faculty at a particular institution, including: the students' professional plans, the number of students, the level of integration of lab and lecture, and the technology resources available.

The first article in this year's series, by Wallert and Provost, describes a course the authors have developed with the specific needs of students going into an industrial lab setting in mind. The stringent requirements for record keeping are introduced and reinforced throughout the semester. Scientists from local industries were involved in development of the course and are expected to appreciate the skills of new graduates who have taken the course.

Beyond traditional record keeping, the electronic or paperless notebook has been “on the horizon” for at least a decade [6, 7]. New platforms and sharing tools have finally made electronic notebooks more accepted [8]. They are part of a growing trend toward electronic portfolios for all types of assignments, as well as for advising. For the teaching lab, electronic notebooks offer greater ease in grading with more effective feedback, the possibility to link to online tools, and options to tailor content and assignments as specific topics and difficulties arise. The article by Johnston et al. especially addresses questions of grading and of acceptance by both students and staff when program-wide implementation of electronic notebooks is made. The authors present a frank discussion of their experiences and outcomes that will be helpful to institutions considering moving to e-notebooks.

Implementation of e-notebooks on a smaller scale is also attainable, as illustrated in the article by Hall and Vardar-Ulu that describes how the electronic notebook can be a tool in guided inquiry in a single course. The use of e-notebooks is shown to be a successful way not only to improve record keeping and grading but also to improve student learning and satisfaction with laboratory courses. By using e-notebooks for pre- and post-class assignments as well as for in-lab record keeping, the authors have been able to tailor the laboratory experience directly to targeted student learning outcomes.

The article by Hall and Vardar-Ulu also describes how the electronic notebook can be a tool to bring bioinformatics and other topics into a traditional BMB lab setting. An alternative way to introduce bioinformatics, protein structure, and molecular docking of ligands is discussed in the fourth manuscript, authored by Maina Bitar et al.

As always, we hope that this annual series serves as a catalyst for revision and renewal of teaching labs in biochemistry and molecular biology.

The BAMBED Innovative Lab series for 2014:

Integrating Standard Operating Procedures and Industry Notebook Standards to Evaluate Students in Laboratory Courses. Mark A. Wallert, Department of Biosciences, Minnesota State University, Moorhead. Joseph J. Provost, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of San Diego.

Using an ePortfolio System as an Electronic Laboratory Notebook in Undergraduate Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Practical Classes. Jill Johnston, Sashi Kant, Vanessa Gysbers, Dale Hancock and Gareth Denyer. School of Molecular Biosciences, The University of Sydney, NSW, Australia

An Inquiry-Based Biochemistry Laboratory Structure Emphasizing Competency in the Scientific Process: a Guided Approach with an Electronic Notebook Format. Mona L. Hall and Didem Vardar-Ulu. Department of Chemistry, Wellesley College, Wellesley

Comparative Modeling of Proteins: A Method for Engaging Students Interest in Bioinformatics Tools. Fernanda Badotti, Alan Sales Barbosa, André Luiz Martins Reis, Ítalo Faria do Valle, Lara Ambrósio, and Mainá Bitar. Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.