Biology faculty Marianne Poxleitner, Brook Swanson and Kirk Anders examine their growing samples of bacteriophage.

Nine biology professors turned into students this summer, learning the new curriculum they will use this fall to teach freshmen how to become phage hunters.

A bacteriophage is a virus that eats….  “We try not to use the word ‘eats’ ” interjects lab coordinator Amanda Boose. “Students grab ahold of that word and forget that phage are infectious particles. They’re not living things.”

So, bacteriophages – phage, for short – are viruses that attack bacteria, injecting their genes, until the bacteria explode, spewing replicas of the phage. Phage are ubiquitous in our world – think  “billions and billions,” the phrase made popular by astronomer Carl Sagan. Phage also are incredibly diverse, and as yet, science knows relatively little about them.

Gonzaga was selected in 2009 to participate in the Science Education Alliance, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The alliance’s first project was to develop a year-long course in which college biology students isolate and annotate the DNA of their own phage. Students gain by participating in and learning from actual research. Scientists gain by broadening their knowledge of phage. Potential benefits are in the medical field.

But Gonzaga is putting a twist on the so-called Phage Hunters lab. While the year-long course has been taught to a few sections of sophomores for the past three years, biology professors Marianne Poxleitner and Kirk Anders found the positive reaction of their students to be thrilling. They wanted more students to learn about science and how to do science through actual discovery.

They wanted to use the phage course as a model for a new freshman lab; all of the biology faculty at Gonzaga supported the idea. Working hand in hand, Anders and Poxleitner wrote a new curriculum for freshmen majors in biology, human physiology and nursing. The result is a truncated phage course, a single semester lab that they hope will give the same discovery-based thrill to hundreds of freshmen each year, versus a few dozen sophomores.

“This is the most important science class they’re going to take. Gonzaga is the only university creating a course like this,” Poxleitner said. “And we have permission from HHMI to disseminate our teaching materials.” In other words, a strong stamp of approval.

In coming years, after this freshman experience, Gonzaga’s science students will take new genetics, physiology, and ecology labs. As well, faculty expect to offer new courses in computational biology and bioinformatics.

And those nine professors turned students? While Poxleitner watches them, she sees similarities between their camaraderie on a summer afternoon and the behavior of her actual students. If she lectures for too long, their attention strays. So, Anders and Poxleitner have created and posted on YouTube videos on various lab techniques. Students will be responsible for learning that material before class.

“Students want to get going, they want to get to work. When Kirk and I did our training at HHMI, we found the same thing – that our attention strayed in a lecture setting. It changed the way I think about teaching.”

-By Marny Lombard

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