Jackson Laboratory wins AAAS award for computational biology educational module

Bar Harbor, Maine – A Jackson Laboratory Internet-based educational program in computational biology has won the SciencePrize for Inquiry-Based Instruction from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Each month the AAAS, the world’s largest scientific organization, recognizes an innovative educational program with the Inquiry-Based Instruction prize in its flagship journal, Science. The May 2013 winner, Quantitative Trait Mapping, grew from an educational outreach program at The Jackson Laboratory’s Center for Genome Dynamics, which gives students an immersion experience as systems biology researchers.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences requires the systems biology centers it funds, including the Center for Genome Dynamics, to have an educational component. Center director Gary Churchill, Ph.D., and outreach coordinator Susan McClatchy work directly with select students at three magnet schools: the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, Maine; the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C., and the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology in Conyers, Ga.

Churchill says that the Quantitative Trait Mapping online module, which is freely available online, “is one of four modules that encapsulate the basic knowledge that I felt the students needed in order to do these systems biology projects. You need a certain set of skills to be able to explore these large data sets we have, and one of those skills is the ability to do genetic mapping.”

During the academic year, Churchill and McClatchy “meet” remotely with the students once a week in a 90-minute online session. “We realized early on,” Churchill says, “that we wanted to use that time for interaction with the kids, rather than lectures. These modules let the students work on the basic skills they need offline, with their teachers, Deborah McGann, Robert Gotwals and Amanda Baskett.”

McClatchy notes that because the Center for Genome Dynamics high school program requires such intensive interaction with the students and their teachers, “it’s not really scalable. However, what is scalable is the Quantitative Trait Mapping module. We would like to see it placed in undergraduate biology courses, where the faculty will already have the requisite scientific background to incorporate the module in their courses.”

Free access to the online module, McClatchy adds, “means that colleges and universities lacking wet lab facilities can provide their students with a real research experience. We have high hopes that it will scale up and scale up big. Really big.”

Churchill, McClatchy and their teacher-collaborators have published an essay describing the Quantitative Mapping Module in this week’s edition of Science“Students as Collaborators in Systems Biology Research.”

The Jackson Laboratory, founded in 1929, is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution based in Bar Harbor, Maine, with a facility in Sacramento, Calif., and a new genomic medicine institute in Farmington, Conn. It employs a total staff of more than 1,450. Its mission is to discover precise genomic solutions for disease and empower the global biomedical community in the shared quest to improve human health.