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Graduate student Jolie Wax presents exercise
Graduate student Jolie Wax presents a problem-based learning exercise on “Food Security: Understanding the Role of Genomic Variation and Plant Breeding.”

Graduate teaching with impact on undergraduate learning

Photos by Monica Moriak

Innovative class allows graduate students to create problem-based learning resources for undergraduates

Exploring a new way to teach, University of Delaware graduate students in Randy Wisser’s “Genome Science: Technology and Techniques” course gained practical experience not only in the field of genome science, but also in helping others learn.

That experience culminated in the development of a problem-based learning (PBL) exercise for undergraduates that was published in Genetics Society of America’s Peer-Reviewed Education Portal.

Problem-based learning is a method of teaching where the motivation to learn is stimulated by confronting real-world problems and learning is elevated by addressing the problems in teams. For PBL, exercises are developed to implement the teaching method. Wisser sought to use this as a platform for teaching his graduate students.

“This is not without some challenges. Graduate students are not used to learning this way, and scientific educators like myself are not used to teaching this way,” explained the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources associate professor. “This has the dual benefit of educating graduate students while providing lesson material for undergraduate teachers and their students. It also provides a publishable product for graduate students and their resumes.”

The endeavor was tied to further UD’s capacity for research and education in genetics and genomics. Beyond the coverage of cutting-edge technologies and techniques in genome science, Wisser used the topic as a platform to teach graduate students about PBL as a strategy they could use in their own teaching. The final result was an open access PBL exercise that can be folded into the coursework for undergraduate programs.

To develop the PBL on “Food Security: Understanding the Role of Genomic Variation and Plant Breeding,” students in Wisser’s class broke up into three groups; each focused on developing a stage and also concentrated on having connectedness between all three stages. “The process encourages the type of peer collaboration that is fundamental to science today. Along the way, the graduate students are faced with having to learn the material well enough to teach it, which is also an invaluable experience,” Wisser said.

Using a scientific breakthrough on the genetics and breeding of flood tolerance in rice as the backbone, stage one provides a broad overview of a human-climate-agriculture dynamic and how plants may be adapted to new climate scenarios. Stage two focuses on genetic diversity and delves into the genetic basis of natural variation, and stage three builds off the first two to dive deeper into the field, focusing on high-throughput sequencing, a technology used to facilitate plant breeding. Each stage is accompanied by guiding questions that help the PBL teacher focus on issues that need to be addressed.

Jolie Wax, Randy Wisser andZbhu Zhuo
Randy Wisser, associate professor of plant and soil sciences, with animal and food sciences graduate students Jolie Wax (left) and Zhu Zhuo (right),

Wisser said that having his graduate students engage in the development of teaching resources for an undergraduate population serves two purposes.

“It produces educational material that may continue to be updated or developed anew each time you offer the class. You can keep things current. Additionally, it gives the graduate students teaching experience — developing curricular materials for students,” he said. “It all stems from problem-based learning. UD has always been one of the leading institutions in that area, so it links to things that have happened here in the past.”

Jolie Wax, who took the class with Wisser and is now a teacher at William Penn High School in Wilmington, Delaware, is the lead author on the paper. Zhu Zhuo, who was a graduate student in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, also played an integral role in developing the materials.

Wax said that the takeaway for undergraduates is to “understand genomic variation and how it can be applied to food security issues, and evaluate and potentially generate high-throughput sequencing data.”

Wax said that while writing PBL exercises is still challenging, the more she does it, the easier it becomes.

“I've written two more exercises for my Natural Resources and Ecology class. I've also scaled down the UD exercise and given stages one and two in a senior high school agriculture course,” she said.

Wisser plans to continue developing this teaching approach which could become widely adopted for graduate student teaching. He believes there is a unique opportunity for this to be improved in order to fill a current gap in the training experience for students at the cusp of becoming professional scientists and educators. At the same time, given the array of graduate programs nationwide, there is remarkable potential for this to generate vast PBL resources for teachers of upcoming generations, an approach which Wisser refers to as "transmissible learning."

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