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3D Evolution Learning: The Study of Biology Enters the Third Dimension

Once bound to Jurassic Park dinosaur fiction and fantasy, genetic sequencing, which allows scientists to analyze an organism’s genetic code, is rapidly becoming a game-changer in the medical world, with the ability to solve complex patient issues.

Clinical usage is possible with the help of sophisticated technology, which, thanks to a $144,777 grant from the National Science Foundation, will find its way to Armstrong’s Biology department this summer.

The two-year grant, which runs through May 2017, will allow the Biology department to fund the operation of a Next-Generation Genetic Sequencer and purchase 3-D technology, a flow tank and advanced computer software in order to help students fully understand evolution.

“Evolution is a core concept in biology,” says Armstrong Assistant Biology Professor Jay Hodgson. “It’s the unifying theme in biology. Our grant will allow us to improve how we teach evolution to our entire biology major.”

Frequent student misconceptions about evolution are what led Hodgson and fellow professors, Aaron Schrey and Austin Francis, to apply for the grant, titled, "Integrating Evolution Across the Biology Curriculum."

“Evolution is one of the concepts that many students struggle with,” notes Hodgson. “There is evidence of teaching and learning that shows that even after students take a dedicated lecture class, they still have a lot of misconceptions.”

Set with hands-on, inquiry-based, outcome-driven program directives, the program will roll out during the Fall 2015 semester. The idea is to weave a continuous thread throughout the biology major with a series of classes, which allow students to analyze the structure and function of a chosen species over a two-year period.

First up, the mallet-shaped head of a hammerhead shark, which Biology majors will 3-D scan and manipulate on the computer.  Able to produce a physical model of the marine predator’s anatomy on the 3-D printer while using specialized equipment, like the flow tank, students can measure flow and sensory properties of the shark’s head while genetic sequencing analyzes data.

“We will use that series of classes in an upward mobility where students will re-analyze the same, central idea but from different aspects using different technologies,” Hodgson explains. “Students will study structure and function within an organism in each of those classes to understand how it evolved and how it performs.”

Sara Plaspohl, Ph.D.

“It’s fun to see students go out and succeed after they graduate from Armstrong"

Sara Plaspohl, Ph.D.
Teaching since: 1994