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Training the next generation: incorporating student-designed experiments and plant pathology into an undergraduate microbiology classroom

Amara Dunn: New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, Cornell University

<div>Designing, conducting, and troubleshooting their own experiments enhances experiential learning and the development of critical thinking skills for undergraduate students, and can make a laboratory course more engaging for both teachers and students. Microbiology students in a 200-level course were given papers describing simple experiments, then asked to identify their own research question and propose a testable hypothesis, refine their question through a literature search, write a protocol, and conduct their experiment. After completing the experiment, students presented their results orally to their classmates and in a written report. Lab activities early in the semester taught basic skills in culturing microorganisms and required students to participate in protocol development. Plant pathogens were included among the available microorganisms because of their real-world relevance and safety (compared to human pathogens), and to expose students to a broader range of career trajectories. Through this process, students asked biological questions, tested hypotheses, and practiced problem-solving. They also analyzed and drew conclusions from their data and developed skills in scientific communication. Students enjoyed having ownership of their experiments, and some were very creative. Challenges (and suggestions for overcoming them) of incorporating student-designed experiments into an undergraduate laboratory will also be discussed.</div>