Agronomist at Iowa State contributes to development of experimental teaching method

AMES, Iowa – It’s experimental in more ways than one.

Steven Cannon, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and an Iowa State collaborator assistant professor of agronomy, is contributing to the development of groundbreaking new techniques to teach undergraduate students complex scientific concepts related to genetics.  Cannon is among 11 authors of a paper published Friday in the journal Science detailing the use of complex data sets in the classroom.

The paper is part of a series of essays investigating experimental methods for teaching science to undergraduates and guiding their work in the laboratory.

Cannon said students are given two large data sets – one describing the genes of a sea anemone and the other the genes of a species of prairie flower – and are encouraged to explore the data and ask questions about how the genetic structures work. The students receive both online and classroom guidance about how to manipulate the data sets, but he said the data are largely unexplored, meaning no one knows exactly what most of the data mean. The students were guided by online “Genomics Explorer” modules designed around the data sets.

This gives students a chance to find some of the answers to their questions on their own, Cannon said.

“The students are turned loose in mostly unexplored data sets and encouraged to explore,” he said. “It’s a new approach for teaching these concepts in a lab setting, and it helps the students put their own stamp on what they’re learning.”

The teaching method was spearheaded by Susan Singer at Carleton College in Minnesota. Cannon’s contribution to the project was his work in assembling the gene sequences – or the transcriptome – of Chamaecrista fasciculata, the prairie flower used as a model data set for the project.

Cannon helped map the plant’s transcriptome sequence, which is a set of all of the plant’s expressed genes from various tissues at different stages of development. He said the plant’s genetic history makes for an interesting case study. For instance, Chamaecrista fasciculata has developed a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria that change nitrogen in the soil into a form the plant can use, a process known as nitrogen fixation.

The plant, which grows in prairie regions from Texas and Oklahoma to Minnesota, is also an important model to study the impact climate change is having on the evolution of plants, Cannon said.

“For several reasons, this plant is a good fit for this project,” he said. “It’s a fascinating example of how genetics can be taught both in the classroom and the lab.”