Effective Way of Teaching Bioinformatics to Undergraduates

Bioinformatics is a new and emerging field that utilizes computer technology to manage and analyze biological information. The use of bioinformatics is a shift from the traditional research methods where laboratories were used. Bioinformatics uses computational approaches and skills to solve biological questions (Neumann 2006). Bioinformatics approach is mainly used in studying molecular and cell biology. The use of bioinformatics in the contemporary classrooms is inevitable, thus the teachers need to include this approach in biology classes. There are several effective methods that can be used to teach bioinformatics to undergraduates as will be discussed below.

The first method proposed by (Parke 2013) is the use of high performance computing (HPC) which involves the use of high performance or fast computers to solve scientific or biological problems. An example of a High Performance Computing (HPC) system is the XSEDE that is used for computing and data sharing. HPC is important in teaching bioinformatics because it increases the capacity of collecting Big Data and the data needs to be analyzed accurately and fast. Bioinformatics involves the analysis of large amounts of data that cannot be accomplished with ordinary computing.

In identifying the most appropriate bioinformatics teaching strategy, it is important to know the level of knowledge of the students. Introducing bioinformatics to students requires the use of customized tools and databases that are taught by teacher assistant in a real-time bioinformatics lab (Neumann 2006). For more advanced undergraduate students, more complex tool and databases such as Student Workbench (bioquest.org), which is a web-based tool used to analyze molecular data, can be utilized.

Students, just like scientists and researchers, are users of bioinformatics. The users not only need to be introduced to bioinformatics but also need continuous training to keep them updated with the evolving technology. (Schneider 2010) proposes the use of a comprehensive bioinformatics training that satisfies the range of student interests and learning objectives (2). The training proposed by Schneider et al. is valuable because it integrates the challenges in training such as differences in trainee backgrounds and lack of materials, and provides the necessary solutions to these challenges. (Wood and Gebhardt 2013) propose a different type of training: the European Learning Laboratory is for Life Sciences (ELLS) LearningLAB which enables the exchange of new information locally and internationally, which in turn helps student to access real-life biological data and get exposed to contemporary research methods (4).

Form and Lewitter proposed the use of inquiry-based learning in teaching bioinformatics that involve solving real-world problems with modern skills (1). Inquiry based learning involves the use of questions and scenarios instead presenting facts to the students, this helps the students learn the subject in their own way. The authors propose rules of teaching bioinformatics that include empowering students, addressing different learning styles and linking activities to pre-existing science curricula.

Students prefer computer based learning compared to traditional learning and they find learning bioinformatics more interesting when working in pairs or groups (Machluf 2016). Even though the students find it more attractive and appealing to use computer based learning, the teacher plays a critical role regarding introduction of bioinformatics to the students, how they guide the students in understanding the activity and their feedback instead of the automatic feedback from the bioinformatics website (Machluf 2016).

Collaborative bioinformatics was also supported by (Goodman and Dekhytar 2014) in what they referred to as cross-disciplinary peer instruction or In-Concert teaching (2): the collaborative learning involved students in life science discipline working interdependently with students in computer science discipline to solve bioinformatics problems or issues.

Goodman and Dekhtyar (2014) proposed an in-concert teaching approach to introducing students to computational thinking through collaborative projects that use software development. As such, they see their approach as emphasizing interdisciplinary communication development as well as collaboration skills for bioinformatics. In the in-concert teaching approach for bioinformatics, the teacher should build an introductory programming course and engage students in problem analysis, implementation, design, and solution evaluation. The teacher then focuses on the problem-solving process thus making the approach suitable for exposing students to bioinformatics for computational skills. Therefore, the students are taught two different courses, shared laboratory component and discipline-specific lectures, in a concerted way (Goodman & Dekhtyar, 2014).

The approach involves two lecturers jointly creating the course materials in a coordinated way although the courses are taught from each instructor’s perspective field. During laboratory assignments, students from both classes work together thus bringing in discipline-specific skills and knowledge. The approach thus involves the concerted efforts of lecturers and students from distinct disciplines working towards a mutual goal.

Additionally, to ensure that bioinformatics is effectively taught to undergraduates, instructors and students should be equipped with the competencies that allow them to use resources and data in ways that resonate with current research practices. The instructors should ensure that students explore web-based bioinformatics resources to increase their digital literacy thus reducing any fear of contact with scientific resources, for example, analysis tools and databases.

LearningLABS are crucial in introducing core concepts of computational biology as well as providing the opportunity to gather from research. Through LearningLABS instructors show their students the connection between cutting-edge research and curricular topics thus bringing science to life and leading to interest in bioinformatics for students. The teachers should spur participation from the students to ensure that they further their skills.

The instructors should align the content of the course with classroom relevant topics to ensure new concepts are implemented, and thus the course succeeds. Further, to ensure students grasp what they are being taught, it is crucial to use materials, such as downloadable PowerPoint presentations, lesson plans to boost the instructor’s ability to teach the course materials.

Form and Lewitter (2011) agree that the right technology is essential to teach bioinformatics to college students effectively. As such, computational tools, if used early enough would be effective in teaching future biologists. The programs suitable for effectively teaching bioinformatics include fsBLAST, which is similar to BLAST for biological data analysis. Through the program, students learn biological structure analysis through various computer programs. These programs handle and manipulate huge data amounts within a short time. However, the instructor should expose the students to a simplified mock-up data analysis on paper and pencil. The exercise may involve protein sequence comparison to reach a relatedness score before using BLAST. To help the students understand the BLAST output, the instructor should present information in different ways, for instance, colorful graphical interface, sequence alignments, and a chart format hit list.

Wood and Gebhardt (2013) explain that LearningLAB teaching courses for instructors offer practical expertise and theoretical knowledge regarding providing students with bioinformatics concepts. Through the European Learning Laboratory for the Life Sciences, ELLS, ensures that students engage directly with instructors thereby shortening the time it takes to furnish students with new scientific findings. Therefore, lecturers act as transformers of knowledge by taking information from the source to the students as “living science.” As such, the lecturers ensure that students gain interest in bioinformatics thus getting inspired to become future scientists.

Another way of teaching bioinformatics to students is through virtual reality techniques. These techniques are essential in facilitating an interface with the external environment as well as generating an artificial ambiance to the students. The instructor visualizes the information as a 3D correlative disposition to create student interest and thus enhance learning interface. The virtual reality techniques help students to understand the applicability of bioinformatics thereby improving the learning outcomes in therapeutics, biochemistry, anatomy, and pharmacology. As such, students learn about data storage and scanning tools, which are essential in MRI data mining in addition to delineating correlations of brain findings using analytical software.

The virtual reality is essential in supporting multiple users at the same time thereby promoting collaborative and interactive learning. Therefore, virtual reality techniques, as opposed to a purely teacher-initiated learning, boost a student’s initiative to study. Instructors should also embrace the recent advances in tablet and mobile technology as learning mediums to equip students with materials and educational links for improved outcomes.

Therefore, students can deepen their bioinformatics knowledge through exposure to computational thinking. However, identification of the problem and instructor collaboration provides the essential learning objectives for teaching the course with expertise from different disciplines. Instructor moderation is crucial in teaching bioinformatics as is computer-based learning. Students can learn bioinformatics through high-performance computing, which uses fast computers to solve biological problems. Further, inquiry-based learning can also assist students to effective grasp the bioinformatics concepts since they would be involved in solving real-world problems with modern skills. Other useful techniques for teaching bioinformatics include virtual reality technologies, which promote interactive and collaborative learning.