National Science Foundation Awards Grant to Seton Hill to Transform Undergraduate Science Education

June 28, 2013
Author: Jennifer Reeger
A $166,951 grant from the National Science Foundation's Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES) program will enable Seton Hill University biology, chemistry and mathematics students to work together to conduct hands-on research into air pollution and how chemicals impact different types of cells.

The grant will allow students in three Seton Hill courses to collaborate on a semester-long research project in the laboratory that will delve into the role chemicals play in the emergence of lung cancer.

Led by Jamie Fornsaglio, Ph.D. associate professor of biology, the project will allow students in the Cell Biology course to distinguish functions of varying types of cells by examining responses to drug or chemical treatment. “This topic is especially relevant in our region. Air pollution in the majority of cities in southwestern Pennsylvania is tied to heightened mortality rates relative to the national average,” said Fornsaglio.

Under the guidance of faculty, the students will work in groups to design their own research projects. They will pick from among four cell types to study – healthy skin cells, healthy lung cells, lung cancer cells and lung cancer stem cells. Working with chemistry students in the Advanced Instrumental Analysis course, they will introduce chemicals found in cigarette smoke to those cells to discover the reaction.

Mathematics students from the Introductory Statistics course will then work with the researchers to analyze the data they compiled.

Fornsaglio said the course design allows students to experience laboratory work in a real-world setting. Instead of working on a different laboratory exercise each week, the students will work on this continuing project.

“Our approach will improve student understanding of the relationship between science and math and will emphasize the importance of collaboration, inquiry and reflection to the research process,” said Sister Susan Yochum, Ph.D., S.C., professor of chemistry and chair of the Division of Natural and Health Sciences. “Students taking courses today want more hands-on experience using concrete data to answer real-world questions that are relevant to their lives.”

“As the modern classroom evolves beyond the traditional scope, our curriculum design must meet the expectations of our students," Yochum added. "While a conventional lecture provides a foundation, today’s learner wants to be engaged. Through this course, students have the opportunity to participate in interactive laboratories while investigating questions related to air pollution and lung cell toxicity. The research they conduct will assist them as they prepare for graduate school and careers.”

“The grant from the National Science Foundation will not only provide Seton Hill students in these classes with a new learning experience in the laboratory, but it will open up new possibilities in teaching math and science in other courses,” said Seton Hill President JoAnne Boyle.

Diana Hoover, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, and Geoffrey Atkinson, Ph.D., assistant professor of mathematics, will collaborate with Fornsaglio on this project.

“We anticipate that the framework we developed for teaching will be adopted by other programs at the University, as well as beyond Seton Hill,” said Fornsaglio. “While the exact laboratory experiments may or may not be replicated, other universities can adapt the model teaching strategies developed to their discipline.”

The students will also use virtual labs and video tutorials on the various techniques they will need to know, such as chemical extraction and isolation, cell culture and chemical exposure and gene expression analysis. The technology will allow students to spend more time in the lab conducting their research rather than learning techniques.

“Research tells us that students who use virtual labs perform better on laboratory practical exams and classroom assessment,” said Fornsaglio, who anticipates 55 to 75 students participating in the project each semester. “The combination of video lab tutorials and in-class labs has been shown to increase student confidence by providing more relevant experience that prepares learners for futures in science.”