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Learning Science/Mathematics by Doing Science/Mathematics - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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Learning Science/Mathematics by Doing Science/Mathematics. Bill Sofer Dept. Genetics Waksman Institute Rutgers. Learning Modern Biological Science by Doing Modern Biological Science. Bill Sofer Dept. Genetics Waksman Institute Rutgers. What’s the best way to learn science?.

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Learning Science/Mathematics by Doing Science/Mathematics

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Bill Sofer

Dept. Genetics

Waksman Institute



Modern Biological Science



Modern Biological Science

Bill Sofer

Dept. Genetics

Waksman Institute


What’s the best way to

learn science?

I don’t know.

But, like many of you

I have drawn on my own experience

to come up with an answer (guess).

My own experience is that I hardly learned any science in high school or college.

I think that my idea of science at the time was that it was a thicket of facts, and that the job of the scientist was, by some mysterious process, to come up with more facts.

When I wasn’t asleep, I was most interested in those facts that were relevant to practical matters like human health and technology.

The words “creativity”, “excitement”, “taste”, and “beauty” weren’t ever mentioned in the science classroom.

The most successful of my fellow classmates were those who memorized the most, did the most practice problems, and were the best at following instructions in the lab.

I was shocked when I got to graduate school

(how and why I went to graduate school is another long story that is best left untold)

I found people there who, while knowing a lot of facts, were most excited about what

wasn’t known.

(to some, what was known was boring, and they were clearly bored when they tried teaching it)

These people found things out by “experiments”.

I was surprised to find that one purpose of experiments was to convince ones peers that what they had found was correct.

Often they made mistakes.

Sometimes the most pursuasive scientists were the least right, and vice versa

Science was being done by a community of people trying to figure out how the world worked by arguing with each other to find out who was right

Therefore the contrast:

School -> emphasis on what is known; bow to authority

Science -> emphasis on what wasn’t known; fight with authority


What’s the best way to learn science?

I don’t know.

But I suggest that we might do better by having students engage in activities that are closer to the way that science is actually practiced rather than by doing the things that they do now.

How do you do that?

Let me present an example of one way

The Waksman Student Scholars Program has been ongoing for 12+ years.

Here’s how it works

Students and their teachers come to the Waksman Institute during the month of July.

Two students and one teacher per school.

There they are presented with a research problem.

They learn the fundamentals of the problem in the summer, and during the academic year they recruit additional students and work on the problem in their schools.

They come back to Rutgers six times during the year to report on their progress.

At the end of the year, in June, they publish their results in the form of a poster presentation.

The current research problem involves a little worm called C. remanei.

It looks very much like the worm C. elegans, a widely used “model” organism.


How closely are the two worms related?

One way to find that out is through their DNA’s.

We cloned a collection of DNA pieces from C. remanei and gave individual clones to different schools

The C. elegans genome had already been sequenced

(it was the first multicellular organism whose sequence was known)

At each school, teams of students carried out some of the laboratory manipulations of molecular biology

Ultimately, the DNA from their clones were sequenced

(thanks to GE Healthcare) and the students analyzed the results

Their raw data looks like this:

No one knew what would turn up.

Students (and their teachers) had to deal with questions like these:

How accurate is the sequence?

How would you increase its accuracy?

Is the same or similar sequence found in the genome of C. remanei?

What tools are available to do these similarity searches?

How do they work?

How do you measure similarity?

If you find a similarity, what is the best alignment between the two sequences?

Is there a best alignment?

How do you find it?

If they find a similar sequence, what are the odds of finding that match (similarity) by chance?

What does it depend on?

Does the sequence code for a protein?

How do you know?

How could you find out?

Can you do an alignment of the protein sequences?

What’s the advantage (disadvantage) of doing an alignment of strings with 20 different characters as opposed to one with four characters?

How many sequences would you have to compare before you were confident that you were getting a good estimate of the similarity between the two organisms?

Why might two sequences

(A in remanei and A’ in elegans; B in remanei and B’ in elegans) show different amounts of similarity?

One could go on and on...

Some students were able to actually publish their sequences. That is they submitted their sequences to Genbank and had them accepted.

They got their names in the literature.

Does this work educationally?

Do students learn more?

Do all students profit from this experience?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that they’re getting a taste of science that is much closer to the real thing.

We’re trying to develop a nationwide program to implement this program:


The High School Genome Sequencing Project

Waksman Student Scholars Program

Drew Vershon

Marty Nemeroff

Susan Coletta

Jeff Charney

Waksman Student Scholars Program

Supported by:



Howard Hughes

GE Healthcare

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