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Biology professor Jodi Schwarz shares in Science prize for genomics curriculum she helped develop

The esteemed scholarly journal Science has awarded its monthly IBI Prize (inquiry-based instruction) to Vassar biology professor Jodi Schwarz and a team of colleagues from other institutions for the genomics curriculum they jointly developed for undergraduate students. In conjunction with the prize Schwarz and her cohorts explained their prizewinning project in the essay “Keeping an Eye on Biology”, published January 25, 2013 in Science.

The Science IBI Prize was established in 2012 to encourage innovative instruction that engages introductory level students through original research projects. Studies show this teaching approach holds great promise for invigorating and expanding interest among college students in the sciences.

“The sciences often lose undergraduate students as potential majors because of the misconception that learning science is a passive process, restricted to absorbing and recalling a long laundry list of facts from textbook material,” explained Schwarz, an Assistant Professor of Biology on the Mary Clark Rockefeller Chair in Environmental Studies. “We overcome this misconception by providing students authentic research experiences, where the answer isn’t known when the research begins. Through this inquiry-based approach students also gain ownership of the questions being asked, of the methodological approaches used to address those questions, and of the approaches used to analyze the data.”

Significantly, the new Science initiative to recognize innovative inquiry-based instruction confirms the larger curricular direction chosen by the Vassar biology department in the past decade. “Our entire first year biology curriculum now builds from students doing biological research,” Schwarz pointed out.

Schwarz joined the Vassar faculty in fall 2006, fresh from a post-doctoral fellowship at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI), one of the centers where the breakthrough sequencing of the human genome was accomplished in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Half of her coworkers on the sizeable JGI staff were computer scientists, and Schwarz quickly learned how critical it is for a biologist to know advanced computational approaches. “You can’t study high-level genome questions without them,” she said.

At the same time Schwarz recognized that, “While undergraduate biology students need to acquire training and expertise in computational methods, they must not lose sight of the biology underlying genomics, and that is the particular challenge we face developing authentic research experiences for them.” Ensuring this baseline biological learning while introducing undergraduates to computational research methods is a central goal of the “Genomics Explorer” curriculum that earned Schwarz and her colleagues their inquiry-based instruction prize.

Jointly receiving the Science prize with Schwarz were colleagues from Carleton College, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service at Iowa State University, the National Center for Genome Resources, and Cornell University. Beginning with her first year at Vassar, Schwarz has helped bring about a variety of academic collaborations to improve genomics education and research at the undergraduate level, also including cohorts from Williams College, City University of New York, and Columbia University. Grants supporting these various efforts, which ultimately led to the development of the prize-winning “Genomics Explorer” curriculum, have come from the Teagle Foundation and the National Science Foundation. For more information about Genomics Explorers, visit http://serc.carleton.edu/exploring_genomics.

Jodi Schwarz took an unconventional path to her scientific interests, and this helps explain the kind of scientist and science educator she has become. “I started out with a BA in history. In fact I avoided science classes, thinking that science was all about memorizing facts.  But as a junior I went away on a semester program where students study oceanography aboard a sailboat equipped for research. This kind of hands-on experience transformed my idea of what science is all about,” explained Schwarz.

She continued, “After college I ended up going to a marine biology research institute in Bermuda to try out the life of a working biologist, and I was hooked.  That’s where I learned about coral symbiosis, which also hooked me and continues to. In fact the ‘Genomics Explorer’ curriculum is geared towards researching coral symbiosis and environmental change. After my experiences at sea and in Bermuda I went back to school for a Bachelor’s degree in biology, so I could go on and get a Master’s in marine science and a PhD in zoology.  All along my interest has been in helping students have that same ‘a-ha’ moment I had, which only comes when you do the hands-on work yourself,” Schwarz concluded.

About Science and its publisher AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal Science as well as Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling. AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes 261 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and more.

About Vassar College

Founded in 1861 and consistently regarded as one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges, Vassar is renowned for its long history of curricular innovation, and for the natural beauty and architectural distinction of its campus. Vassar has always been dedicated to academic discovery and independent inquiry, and early on the college adopted “go to the source” as its academic credo. It was the first U.S. college to be founded with an art collection and gallery; today its Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center holds over 18,000 works by such masters as Picasso, Rembrandt, O'Keeffe, and Pollock. In 1982 Vassar was the first college to grant an undergraduate degree in cognitive science. In 2013 the college will begin construction of an ambitious new Integrated Science Center, to create cutting edge facilities that closely ally such departments as biology, chemistry, computer science, physics, and psychology, as well as affiliated interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary degree programs (e.g. biochemistry, cognitive science, environmental studies, neuroscience and behavior).

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college.

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, January 28, 2013