Teaching students about science by involving them in original research has a long history at Hope College. A new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is extending the learning even further.

Hope is part of a group of colleges and universities nationwide to hold grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for an ongoing collaborative effort to add research experiences to upper-level biochemistry laboratory courses and make the materials available to educators around the world.

The participating institutions have each received their own external support for their involvement in the project.  Dr. Michael Pikaart, associate professor of chemistry, received a $29,129 award from the NSF this spring to continue the effort at Hope across the next three years.  A previous, two-year NSF award to the college had provided support for initial development since 2015.

Through the project, students in the courses at the participating colleges and universities have been studying proteins whose three-dimensional molecular structure is known but whose functioning is not understood.  Each is given a unique protein with which to work, seeking to learn more about it via both computer modeling and “wet lab” testing.

Pikaart noted that the approach retains the traditional and crucial lessons of how to do such work, but importantly provides experience with addressing questions whose answers aren’t known in advance — an important skill for scientists and throughout life.

“There are some foundational techniques that we want to teach in that lab,” he said.  “We’re doing that, but instead of a protein that we know everything about, we know the structure but not the function.”

He has been pleased with the results in the college’s junior/senior-level biochemistry laboratory.  “There’s much less of ‘Tell me what I have to do’ and much more a sense of ‘How can I figure this out?,’” Pikaart said.

Through the new round of support, the participating schools will continue to work together to assess and refine the approach and the course materials being developed, helping to assure that the methodology and material can readily be adapted by other institutions as well.  The finalized learning “modules” will be shared online.

The effort builds on several years of work at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).  In addition to Hope and RIT, the schools participating in the initial collaboration were California Polytechnic San Obispo, Oral Roberts University, St. Mary’s University and Ursinus College.  They’ve been joined in the new round by Purdue University and the State University of New York at Oswego.

Hope has involved students in collaborative research with faculty for decades, pioneering an effective approach for which the college has repeatedly received national recognition. During the summer of 2016, 147 science, 32 social science, and 14 arts and humanities students participated in faculty-mentored research, making Hope’s summer research program among the largest in the nation at a liberal arts college.  Since faculty are active in scholarship year-round, many more students engage in research during the academic year.

The research model has also been integrated into other course experiences at Hope.  For example, in the two-semester, freshman-level Phage Genomics course in biology, offered since 2008, students isolate and characterize previously unknown bacteriophages.  In the year-long Day 1:Watershed program, students live in the same residence hall and take coursework together while conducting research on E. coli in the Lake Macatawa watershed.