Wisconsin Outreach Research Modules
The integration of diverse disciplines of scientific research is revolutionizing our understanding of biology. Advances in microscopy have enabled scientists to obtain a more thorough understanding of their field of study by complimenting their biochemical and genetic data. Researchers have a wide range of data resulting from established collaborations, yet have had no formal mechanism to disseminate these data to educators. This isolation of research from education unfortunately often occurs throughout the University of Wisconsin (UW) system. The aim of the Wisconsin Outreach Research Modules (W.O.R.M) Initiative is to create a model to disseminate scientific methods and research data into undergraduate education throughout the UW system.
Caenorhabditis elegans and Education
The model focuses on one specific kind of data, microscopic images of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. The characteristics that make C. elegans an ideal educational model are the same qualities that have made it one of the most widely used research models. It is a compromise between complexity and simplicity. C. elegans is a simple, primitive organism which, nonetheless, shares many of the essential biological characteristics with humans. The majority of the great biological enigmas are all being studied in C. elegans: embryogenesis, morphogenesis, nerve system development and function, and aging. When combined with its known genomic sequence, C. elegans provides a unique and powerful educational tool.
The UW-Madison campus has one of the world's strongest research programs in C. elegans, hosting four research labs and international C. elegans meetings. In collaboration with scientists from across the country, UW researchers have developed unique instrumentation to help elucidate the structure and function of key systems in C. elegans. In addition, the C. elegans genome has been sequenced, marking a milestone in the understanding of eukaryotic systems. This genetic information, coupled with time-lapse movies of development created at Laboratory of Optical and Computational Instrumentation (LOCI) play an important role in understanding the function of genes in C. elegans and other eukaryotes.
In an educational setting, these kind of data could easily be used to supplement existing lecture- and textbook-based curricula. With images from this project, instructors could show their students movies of cells dividing and cell division mutants. The W.O.R.M. Initiative establishes a framework to transfer this kind of select research data to educators in the UW system.
Exploratory Research in the Classroom
The transfer of information from the researcher to the educator is a crucial and well-established process. Published scientific data are extensively peer reviewed to ensure a public knowledge that is as accurate as possible. Peer review has the unfortunate side effect of having educators one step behind current research knowledge, although this does assure that theories and hypotheses are substantiated and supported before presented in classrooms. However, there is a growing consensus among educators and researchers alike that while the facts are important, strict adherence to this established transfer process results in students not being exposed to the process of generating new knowledge.
Exposure to research in a exploratory fashion allows students to understand not only the facts themselves, but the process in which the facts are established. We propose a model in the University of Wisconsin System that combines both tactics: traditional resources as well as resources that engage students in the process of science. In this way the facts are preserved and supplemented with a understanding of how they were determined.