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A Conversation with UM Faculty: Dr. Leslie Knecht, Ph.D., Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences

In the fall of 2016, Dr. Leslie Knecht co-taught with Dr. J. David Van Dyken, assistant professor of biology, a Chemistry (CHM 113) / Biology (BIL 152) integrated laboratory course made possible through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The HHMI courses provide opportunities for first-year students from underrepresented minorities to conduct scientific research and explore career paths in the biomedical sciences.

Leslie Knecht, PhD

A member of the 2016 Faculty Learning Community, Dr. Knecht was introduced to the services offered in the University of Miami’s pilot Learning Commons, located on the first floor of the Otto G. Richter Library. The Learning Commons supports creativity and experimentation, including designing and modeling 3D objects. Doctors Knecht and Van Dyken decided to incorporate opportunities for the students to use the 3D printing service in the Digital Media Lab, one of the many academic service partners participating in the Learning Commons.

In this conversation with Dr. Knecht from January 2017, Kelly Miller, associate dean for Learning and Research Services, found out more about the design of the course and assignments, the tools and services used, and what the students were able to discover and learn during the semester.

 

Students pipetting yeast onto agar plates. Image credit: Genetic Engineering and Analytical Platforms with Yeast group 3.2 of the HHMI Biology and Chemistry Laboratory.

Can you briefly describe the course you taught with Dr. Van Dyken and what you hoped the students would learn?

The course is an introductory laboratory course that integrates both biology and chemistry. The goal is to give students an authentic research experience at the introductory level so we can demystify science for the students and, hopefully, excite them to begin pursuing other research opportunities in a STEM field. We want to take a true interdisciplinary approach to research so they can see that what they learn in their biology class can be relevant to the topics they learn in chemistry, physics, etc.

Briefly, in the course they genetically engineered knockouts in yeast. This means that they chose specific genes to delete or replace in the DNA of the yeast. They had to research the genes and make their own hypotheses on the effects the deletion would have on some testable characteristic of the yeast. They then tested these hypotheses using traditional lab techniques (petri dishes, microtiter plates, test tubes).

For the second half of the lab, they were tasked with creating new analytical platforms to perform their analyses. Each group noted shortcomings with the traditional techniques and created a device or platform that could overcome that shortcoming. They were able to use a 3D printer, a polymer, and a wax printer to create their designs. After the initial creation, the students had to optimize many parameters to get the yeast to grow because there was little literature precedent using these types of platforms for yeast.

Ultimately, we want to show students that science is truly an interdisciplinary subject, and sometimes that does not adequately come across in our normal curriculum. We want students to learn that it is okay to break the boundaries of a discipline and use unique and creative collaborative ideas to solve problems. In short, we hoped the course and project would excite the students about science and teach them to not just be analytical, but also creative in their problem solving.

 

Left to right: M3D Micro 3D Printer and the lab group’s first printed mold. Image credit: The Lab Journal.

In what ways did the “Create” portion of the Learning Commons’ service model (supported by the Digital Media Lab ) enable you to create new or different types of assignments for the course?

We could not have completed the project if not for the Digital Media Lab. Before becoming a member of the Faculty Learning Community, I had no idea that the Library had a 3D printer we could use. The staff there, specifically Morgan McKie, was instrumental in allowing the project to move forward. They were more than willing to come to my class and give presentations on how to use the available software to make the 3D models. Morgan helped to troubleshoot some of the design flaws my students had (walls that were designed too thin, models that were out of the size range of the printer, etc.).

One student, who was really involved in the 3D modeling software, would go to the Digital Media Lab in her spare time to learn the software. To me, that is what teaching is all about — to inspire students to learn something new that can translate to transferrable skills in the future. Without the support of the Digital Media Lab, this project would not have been as successful as it was.

 

Top to bottom: Original model design and the finalized 3D printed Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) platform students created to be able to analyze the competition of wild-type and mutant yeast. Image credit: HHMI General Biology Laboratory Group 1.2.

How does 3D printing, in particular, enable your students to learn in new or different ways?

By allowing the students to make their own analytical platforms, they had complete ownership of the project. It was THEIR design. They were invested in the outcome of the project. Technology like 3D printing allows for students to bring creativity to the classroom. They had to really think about what they wanted to achieve and carefully design something to reach their goals. No two designs were the same, even though some of their goals were the same. 3D printing their own analytical platform enabled the students to truly think about what they were doing in the lab, not just go through the motions of getting an experiment done so they can leave lab for that day. Again, by being able to 3D print, it showed students that there is a creative component to science. It demonstrates that you are not confined to what exists, but you can create new things to solve your specific problem. To me, that is what science is about.

 

How did you, as the teacher, learn about the students’ experiences? What did you ask them to share with you?

One thing I pride myself on is the relationship I have with my students. They often speak to me about experiences on campus with the various resources that we offer. For example, my students told me early in my teaching career that there were no tutors available for my class at the Camner Academic Resource Center. I went to the center to speak with one of the directors to shed light on the situation and they were very helpful, making accommodations for the students who needed it. For the HHMI laboratory course, I frequently spoke with the students about their experience in the Digital Media Lab. There were good lines of communication between employees in the Lab and my students. The employees, namely Morgan, went above and beyond to assist my students. I think the common theme with the Learning Commons is that they are here to help and will do whatever is possible to facilitate the students’ learning.

 

In your view, why is it so important to increase representation of minorities in the biomedical sciences research community? How might the Learning Commons contribute to this effort, do you think?

It is important to increase minorities in the biomedical sciences and sciences in general because they are so underrepresented. As a society, we need to step back and ask ourselves why this is true. I am a minority in the sciences in several ways: I am a woman, I am African American, and I grew up with a very disadvantaged socioeconomic background. When I look back, the key thing that got me interested in sciences was the enthusiasm and encouragement from teachers and mentors along the way. As a professor, I want to demonstrate that science is not just what you learn in a textbook but also has a creative component. I want to be enthusiastic about science so my students will feel enthusiastic. I want to create an atmosphere for my students that encourage them to talk to me when they have problems and to find solutions for those problems. That is where the Learning Commons plays a key role. I have sent students to the Camner Academic Resource Center for tutoring and I have sent some of my best students to apply to be tutors at the center. Having a free tutoring resource helps break down those socioeconomic barriers some students may have.

My students commonly reserve study rooms at the library and study together as groups. This community builds relationships and confidence of the students taking the course. I have used the Digital Media Lab to encourage collaborations and creative thinking about science. All of these things help break down barriers and make science more accessible to everyone.

 

Groups of students researching primers to block the IRA2 gene, the gene they had chosen to genetically modify. Image credit: Hell Yeast.

How would you like to see the “Create” portion of the Learning Commons’ service model grow and develop?

I wish more classes would use the technology and the expertise that exists in the Learning Commons. There are a million things you can do with 3D printing, whether it be making a model for demonstrative purposes or making actual working prototypes as my students were able to do. Beyond 3D printing, I think educational game design would be interesting and serve as a conduit to finding more interdisciplinary approaches to subjects that you normally wouldn’t pair.

I would love to see a well-attended open house with faculty from across the University to converse and assist one another with coming up with innovative and integrative technology driven pedagogy. Of course, I would also like to see the Learning Commons get more resources (like more 3D printers) and gain a larger audience in the University. It truly is a valuable resource, but more faculty need support in understanding how to tap into the benefits of the resource.

 

What was the most surprising or exciting thing you learned during the semester?

I wouldn’t say I was surprised by the students’ enthusiasm for their projects, but it definitely excited me. Students were checking on their experiments on days when lab was not in session. They were coming together in their groups and excitedly discussing the project. When one of their ideas checked out, they would cheer and high five. During presentations, students in the entire class would collaborate and offer advice from their failures and successes to one another. It would be any instructor’s dream to see how involved and invested the students were in their learning.

 

Photos from a yeast test lab report. Image credit: HHMI Group 4.

How does this course reflect the way scientific experimentation in laboratories is changing in the 21st century?

Technology is continuously advancing knowledge in the scientific community. Technology has enabled us to see matter on the atomic scale, develop better diagnostics for earlier detection of diseases, and to characterize materials that we cannot even see with the naked eye. All of this technology comes from creative people coming together to create new technology or use existing technology in new ways to solve problems. That is what this course was meant to show students.

We need to train our future scientists to take risks, to be creative, and to think outside of the box to solve problems. We have so much technology at our fingertips and most students are aware of and have used the technology for non-science related things. We wanted to show them that they can take something that has a different purpose and repurpose it to solve a problem.

For instance, we had one group use spray-on deodorant, tape, and an adhesive spray on paper to perform one of their tests. One doesn’t usually think of using those things to perform science, but you definitely can use them.

Science is also becoming more and more interdisciplinary. This lab showed the students that sometimes it takes more than one scientific field to solve problems. Collaborative research and being able to work and communicate over different disciplines is of utmost importance for future scientific advances.

 

Can first-year students truly contribute to scientific research, and if so, how?

Yes, yes, yes! First-year students can definitely contribute to scientific research. Sometimes they don’t even realize how their knowledge can be applied to solve scientific problems. I think it is our job as faculty and mentors to help a student make connections between what they are learning in their courses and how they can use that knowledge in research. We also must show students how to use the scientific literature to solve problems. Once my students knew where to look, they found peer-reviewed scientific publications that gave them ideas for their projects.

If any student is interested in research, they should contact the Office of Undergraduate Research in the first floor of the Ungar Building. This office assists students with finding a research lab based on their interests. Even if a student isn’t sure what area of science they are most interested in, they should go to this office and find out more about the research opportunities on campus.

 

How did participation in the Faculty Learning Community affect your own approach to teaching the course?

I cannot say in words how much I appreciated my time in the Faculty Learning Community. I went because I wanted to make problem-solving videos for my lectures. I left not only learning about the One Button Studio to make the videos, but also learning about the 3D printers, how to do virtual office hours, game design and development, and a host of other things.

It was incredible to collaborate with faculty from other colleges in the University and to reimagine my discipline in a more interdisciplinary way. It was also wonderful to hear how other professors approached solving problems similar to what I have had in teaching and giving my advice to other faculty based on my experiences. I definitely felt like it was a community, and I made some great connections.

 

Left to right: Printing a test mini-manometer starts with the 3D modeling stage and ends with removing the finished print from its mold. Image credit: Yeastparalogs.

What courses are you teaching this semester, and will you do anything differently based on your experience in the Fall?

I am currently teaching an upper divisional analytical chemistry lab course (a lab course for chemistry majors). In the previous year, I had taught this course and did not have a authentic research component or a project. Therefore, I wanted to implement a project utilizing technology much like the students used in the HHMI lab course. However, unlike the HHMI course, I am allowing students to have more freedom to choose what type of project they would like to complete based upon their individual research interests. Thus far, I have seen that giving too much freedom can sometimes be overwhelming for students because they aren’t sure where to begin, especially when you are introducing them to things they have never been exposed to. I have had to take a more involved approach this semester and help guide the students. Having a more defined goal and guidelines is definitely something to keep in mind when trying to implement this type of project in the future. Although the students have seen these technological concepts, we are utilizing them in ways the students are not familiar with.

 

Is there anything else you would like to share with us today that we haven’t asked about?

I would just say to faculty that we have so many resources for our students on campus, starting with the Learning Commons. These resources aren’t always well advertised, and students sometimes overlook them. As faculty, we need to guide our students to the resources that give them the best chance to be successful. Further, we need to be advocates of innovation in the classroom. We are teaching a new generation of technologically savvy students and to engage them, we need to tap into their interests. The Learning Commons is a great place to get started, and even if they do not have what you need, they will definitely help direct you where to go.

 

Thank you for sharing these insights with us!