Project Spotlight: Barcoding Life's Matrix

Project Spotlight: Barcoding Life's Matrix

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

STELAR had the opportunity to speak with Ralph Imondi (Coastal Marine Biolabs Integrative Biosciences Program) about the Barcoding Life's Matrix project, which engages students in an international collaboration that aims to create a genetic encyclopedia of Earth's plants and animals using short DNA sequences that uniquely identify species groups. The goal of this Strategies project is to interest students in STEM careers by providing them with an opportunity to contribute real data that will help scientists catalog and preserve biodiversity. This work unfolds during research experiences that immerse high school students and teachers in the real work of the scientific community by barcoding ecologically and commercially important marine species found in the waters surrounding California's Channel Islands and Marine Protected Areas.

*     Can you share how your ITEST project impacts youth?

Although largely overlooked in educational settings, discovery science is a widely used approach to scientific research that seeks to formulate new hypotheses and develop new technologies through the generation and analysis of large data ensembles (e.g. big data).  The Barcoding Life’s Matrix project fills an important void by engaging high school science teachers and students in the International Barcode of Life project, a discovery science-based crowdsourcing initiative aimed at identifying, cataloging, and understanding Earth’s biodiversity using a DNA barcode system.  Student work, which is conducted within an educationally rich context, integrates field, laboratory, and informatics procedures within a single, multistep workflow that culminates in the generation, annotation, analysis, validation, and publication of professional-quality biodiversity genomics data in an enterprise-scale global repository.

*     What is unique about your work?

The highly multidisciplinary scope and data-intensive nature of student work, its reliance on advanced and in-depth life science content and process knowledge, and its emphasis on 21st century issues, technical skills, and science practices centered on big data, are particularly innovative aspects of the project.  By applying the knowledge and repertoire of skills that they acquire through the program, students have a unique and exciting opportunity to aid an international community of scientists in a socio-scientific enterprise of global significance, a design attribute that teachers regard as central to positive learning outcomes. 

The project also derives its uniqueness from the expertise, input, and direct participation of the scientists, education researchers, informaticians, educators, and science media and communications experts who comprise our core collaborative team. The synergistic interactions among these diverse professionals have established a viable link between the scientific and educational communities, resulted in the creation of innovative technology resources to support this linkage, and conferred a number of distinct practical, logistical, and pedagogical advantages to this effort. 

*     How do you use Cyberlearning to engage and enhance student understanding of STEM and related careers?

Establishing technology infrastructure to support the pedagogical and hands-on aspects of the student learning experience has been a major focus of the Barcoding Life’s Matrix project.  The conceptual foundation of the 16-unit curriculum is exceptionally challenging for teachers and students given its depth, academic rigor, and emphasis on content and process knowledge that spans a variety of life science disciplines.   To address this important challenge, we created a customized, web-accessible e-learning environment that effectively supports program instruction in a network of over 60 US schools.  In addition to deploying an integrated suite of multimedia resources that we developed as curriculum supports, the system employs real-time analytics to examine resource usage and engagement by our learning community, reward systems to bolster engagement in digital media, and embedded formative assessment tools and reports to provide actionable information on student learning of content and process knowledge.  This advanced learning technology is now being adapted to support participants of another federally sponsored STEM effort that was recently launched by our organization with support from the NIH SEPA program. 

The hands-on aspects of the project, which unfold in the field and high school lab, involve the creation of digital records that contain taxonomic, geospatial, genetic, and other forms of specimen data.  In order for students to share their data with the scientific community – an important factor underlying student investment in their learning – we were faced with two difficult challenges:  streamlining and standardizing data collection in the field, and developing a web-based platform that enables teachers and students to assemble and share records that conform to established data standards.  The first challenge was met by developing the DNA Barcoding Assistant, a free utility app for iPhone and Android smartphones that is now being used by thousands of users in over 10 countries to aid the collection of field data.  The second challenge required the creation of the BOLD Systems Student Data Portal (BOLD-SDP), a classroom-focused interface to BOLD Systems, the centralized workbench, data repository, and data retrieval environment for the global DNA barcoding community.  BOLD-SDP simplifies the record assembly process for students, creates a three-tier pathway for the validation and publication of student records in the BOLD Systems and the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration, and employs a suite of data analysis and visualization tools to engage students in a spectrum of 21st scientific practices associated with big data. Operating through this informatics platform, students and teachers have contributed over 2000 validated barcode records to the International Barcode of Life project, the largest biodiversity genomics project ever undertaken.   Apart from active high school participants, BOLD-SDP is now being utilized by postsecondary students from over 20 universities in 12 US states and 5 countries.

*     What do you think is the most important learning in this area based on your project work to-date?

Although significant student gains in content and process knowledge, attitudes, confidence, and self-efficacy are important indicators of project success, we regard the responses obtained from teachers during structured interviews and follow-up surveys, to be especially informative.  More specifically, the vast majority of teachers reported that the project is effective in engaging students who do not typically find science interesting and that as a result of participating in the project, their students are more interested in pursuing STEM careers.  Teachers also indicated that professional development experiences changed their expectations of what they should know to effectively teach science, and that their involvement in the program changed their expectations of what students are capable of learning and achieving.  Since teacher expectations are strong predictors of student achievement, these are especially encouraging project outcomes. 

*     Which STELAR/ITEST resources do you find most valuable?

While our team finds many of the STELAR resources to be valuable assets for the ITEST community, we frequently browse and select publications posted on the STELAR website for research insights and guidance.  Our team members are also encouraged to view recorded/archived webinars, some of which are selected as a primary focus of staff meetings.