One of the student pick-and-patch masterplates

One of the student pick-and-patch masterplates

It has been months since I wrote a blog post, party because of busy professional times (applications, abstract submissions, deadlines), plus holidays, a nasty cold, and family. Nothing out of the ordinary.

I started a microbiology course last week, one that is greatly relevant for me: it is the adaptation of Yale’s Small World Initiative to our university’s accelerated schedule. Even more, it is actually an attempted merger of our previous lab curriculum with Yale’s research-based approach. One week into the course I am cautiously optimistic that we will pull it out.

During the pilot partners workshop last summer, it was obvious that the accelerated pace would be one of our main issues. The original Small World Initiative (SWI) was developed with a traditional semester course in mind (14-15 weeks). On the other hand, it also assumes shorter lab sessions and students being engaged in a number of other classes and activities. National University‘s model is based on students being focused on one course at a time, and lecture and lab are considered one course each running concurrently. This means long (2-3 hour) labtime chunks 2-3 times per week, for 8 weeks.

So developing the schedule has not been too bad. Of course, the main issue will come once the soil cultures are tested for antibiotic producers. We would like students to have something with activity against the tester strains so they can move forward. If this does not happen, in a semester there is time to go back and swab new soil samples. In 8 weeks, that may not be possible. I have some cultures to provide as positive controls and if it comes to that, something to work on if there are no producers.

The other issue has been also the student population and their majors. Most of our microbiology students are heading to nursing or other health-related careers, not research. It is part of the curriculum and also our obligation as instructors to introduce students to the importance of aseptic technique, the role of disinfectants, antibiotics and hand-washing, plus let them practice some of the most common medical microbiology procedures (throat and urine cultures, bacterial typing, some serology etc.)

Yale has developed a very nice laboratory manual for the SWI, which is basically open source. Obviously, it does not contain any of the medical microbiology kind of experiments. My original idea was to use that manual with handouts for the other exercises. However, things got soon complicated. The beginning of the SWI process is quite mellow: swab soil samples, observe, pick and patch. Even including all kind of discussions about soil microbes, culture media, and colony characteristics, the lab procedures are rather quick. It made sense to use the extra time to get students going with smears and stainings, and to practice aseptic technique and microscopy.

So at some point during the holidays I realized that it was easier for me to start assembling a new manual that mixing and matching two.

Yeah, I know.

I am writing the manual as we go, basically. I use a live Google document that my students have access to, but cannot edit. I also make copies of the procedures as most of them, tech savvy as they are, like paper.

In a way I am glad. For years we, the microbiology instructors, have dreamed with writing our own lab manual. While we go from the manual for most of the basic exercises, we have our own tweaks to many others plus the added little exercises developed over the years.

But…it is quite a chore, especially as it was not really planned.

What do they say? Out of the frying pan…into the FIRE (cue Meat Loaf)!

And that is all for today. I’ll try to post updates about the logistics of the course and how the project is going. As of today, students have colonies and they have made their master plates. With MLK weekend coming, we will play with some other techniques this week (streaking, differential media) and get started with antibiotic production testing next week.

It will be fun 🙂