University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM Faculty Win $300,000 NSF Grant to Explore “Making” of a Bio Major

What can universities learn from the maker movement about teaching biology to undergraduate students? Can the world of making help universities get more creative students excited about careers in biology? The National Science Foundation has awarded a $300,000 grant to a team of faculty at the University of Vermont to find out.

The grant went to Andrew Mead, a research associate in the Biology Department, along with former Biology chair Jim Vigoreaux, now an associate provost, and associate professor of English and problem-based learning researcher, Libby Miles

The grant application and the research program it proposes were built around a pilot Biology course created by Mead and Vigoreaux and funded by an Engaged Practices Innovation grant from the Office of the Provost, called BioFabLab.

Students in the course design, prototype, and build their own experimental instruments – working in partnership with experts at Burlington Generator, a Burlington makerspace – to assist Biology faculty in their research. Working in teams, students are given a real research question and, over the course of the semester, develop an experimental device that helps answer it, using available technologies made popular by the maker movement, such as 3D printing and Arduino, and by interacting with skilled members of the local maker community.

The two-year grant will fund an expansion of BioFabLab geared entirely to first-semester, first-year students in the College of Arts and Science’s Teacher Advisor Program. Surveys, a focus group, and sophisticated analysis of student writing will be used to evaluate the effect of the course on students’ attitudes toward biology and studying science. Their subsequent course selection will also be tracked.

Introducing students to biology in a makerspace setting rather than a lecture hall is a provocative new approach to solving an old problem, Mead said. Although creativity, innovation, and the ability to ‘tinker’ are essential qualities of the modern working life scientist, and an important part of the scientific thought process, they are underemphasized in the early undergraduate curriculum at UVM and elsewhere. An aim of the study is to test the maker approach as a means of attracting those students who may possess an aptitude for creative thinking, but might for other reasons pass over opportunities to major in the life sciences. Furthermore, nearly half of biology majors leave college or change majors, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The study aims to test whether early exposure to BioFabLab might be a way to reduce this attrition.

“Some students who may have a real talent in biology get selected out early because they are intimidated by lecture-based classes; they avoid them, or they do poorly, and start to see themselves as not good at science.”

BioFabLab aims to spur students’ creativity – an essential skill for any kind of research career – and get them to love biology in the process.

“We want this to be a course where you can come and get really excited, to see all sides of a research project and to leave with a sense of accomplishment,” Mead said. Students will then take on the required lecture courses “with more confidence and with some context for the facts they are expected to learn,” he said. 

BioFabLab had exactly that impact on students in its pilot form. Students evaluation of the course were uniformly high. 

The research also aims to identify those qualities of the maker experience that are attractive to students, a topic of keen interest to the National Science Foundation. The BioFabLab grant was made under an NSF grant program called Enabling the Future of Making to Catalyze New Approaches in STEM Learning and Innovation.

As biology advances and research techniques evolve to address new questions, creativity and the ability to work with non-biologists on engineering problems like those addressed in BioFabLab will be at a premium, said Mead.

In recent years the ‘omics’ revolution has provided life scientists with a wealth of data to pore over, but other areas, such as phenotyping, have lagged. A major task of the next generation of scientists will be to conceive of and build sophisticated devices to measure the effects genes have on living organisms.

Examples of instruments students created in the BioFabLab pilot courses include a device to test whether zebra fish embryos with eye-development mutations can see, and a device that tracks the motion and energy expenditure of fruit flies to better understand how muscles affect the aging process.