Collaborative Writing in the Sciences
Taught by: Teresa Garrett
What is the course in which you use instructional technologies about? Tell us about its origin, goals and objectives.
The genomic revolution has provided researchers with an enormous amount of information about the primary structure of proteins. From this information it is hypothesized that the human genome contains over 30,000 genes which encode and even larger number of proteins. Roughly 50 % of the function of these proteins is not completely known. For proteins, however, much of the information about a proteins function is given by the structure of the protein ultimately dictated by the sequence of amino acids that make up the protein. The next big challenge in biochemistry is to predict the structure, and therefore the function, of a protein from the primary sequence of amino acids.
In this course we investigate the relationship between structure and function of proteins. Through analysis of the primary literature and interaction with the three dimensional structure of proteins students gain an appreciation of the complexity of the problem of predicting protein structure from primary amino acid sequence.
Analysis of primary literature is a major focus of this course. Students read primary literature and through that learn about the techniques used to analyze protein function, and structure. Making connections between the function of a protein and its structure underlies all of the literature analyses.
In addition, a major component is to develop scientific writing skills. Toward that end students collaboratively write periodic reviews of the literature discussed in class. In addition, students choose a protein to comprehensively review. Through writing a write a review and presenting a summary of their protein's structure and function in a short oral presentation to the class students gain an appreciation for how protein structure can impact emerging areas of science, medicine, and biotechnology.
What were the technologies used and how did they change or enhance your course?
We use several technologies in this course. The students prepare periodic reviews of the literature using a collaborative writing tool called Plone. This technology allows students to work on a piece of writing in an online environment. Bibliographies, literature sources, figures, and other files can be linked to the document. Having the summary centrally located online allows students to work together without having to get together. In addition, the document on Plone is always the most current draft; version control is not an issue. This environment allows the me to periodically check on the progress of students writing. I can make comments and suggestions or give encouragement as necessary.
We also use Discovery Visualizer to view macromolecular molecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins. After downloading files from the Protein Data Bank (PDB), students can interact directly with the three-dimensional structure. Using this program, the specific inter- and intra-molecular interactions can be visualized. How the structure of the protein relates to the function can be investigated by looking at the molecular structure of the protein in depth. Interactions between the protein and small organic molecules that it affects or that modulate its activity are revealed in these structures.
The Student Response
How have your students responded to your use of technology?
After a short acclimation period, students used Plone quite easily. They report that it enhances their writing and their ability to collaborate with other classmates. The important skill of collaborative writing is effectively developed through using Plone.
Discovery Visualizer affords students the important opportunity to interact with the three-dimensional structure of proteins and other macromolecules. They become quite proficient with this software and use it ultimately to analyze protein structures and develop figures for their protein review project.
What are the challenges you faced teaching this course?
One major challenge for this class is the diverse backgrounds of the students in the course. Chemistry majors who take the course often have a solid background in Chemistry yet haven't taken very many courses in Biology and biochemistry. Biology and biochemistry majors, on the other hand, have had several biology and biochemistry courses. The collaborative atmosphere reinforced by the use of Plone allows all students to bring their unique skill sets to bear on the analysis of the literature.
What new directions would you like to explore with technology in your teaching?
In the future I will continue the collaborative writing aspect of this course. In addition I would like to expand the collaborative aspects of the course by including peer evaluation of student writing. Student writing will improve through peer review of each other's work.
In addition I would like to expand the use of molecular visualization. As more and more three-dimensional protein structures are determined, the ability to relate structure to protein function self-control impact other areas of research that can be incorporated into the course.