(l-r) Students Amy Nusbaum and Joseph Lawhead

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ‘04

James Bonner loves science. As a freshman, James knew he wanted to major in biochemistry, so when he was selected to be part of the new hands-on Science Education Alliance biology lab, or SEA lab, in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences, he was thrilled.

“The lab brings abstract scientific concepts into everyday learning,” said Bonner, one of 24 randomly selected freshmen admitted to the SEA lab in the fall 2011, the program’s pilot year.

Funded through a 3-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Science Education Alliance is a nation-wide research project that allows freshmen the chance to gain first-hand experience in a real lab setting. During the very first semester, students isolated, purified, and named a virus from a soil sample. Every sample is unique, creating a sense of ownership for the students that might not otherwise be evident in a traditional biology class setting.

“Normally students don’t have the chance to work in a real lab setting until their junior year,” said Julie Stanton, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, who heads up the lab. “By exposing freshmen to a research lab environment, it can capture their excitement and involve them in the thrill of scientific discovery.”

(l-r) Students Amy Nusbaum and James Bonner with Julie Stanton, clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences.

Because the current national retention rate of students in biology or the molecular sciences from freshman to senior is only around 50 percent, this type of learning environment may lead to higher retention rates since students feel connected with science early on.

“It has opened my eyes up to what real science is,” said Amy Nusbaum, a student who because of the lab might now consider a future career in science. “Students feel more connected with their lab in this type of learning environment because they are invested in their projects.”

Although a pilot program, the School of Molecular Biosciences hopes to implement it as a new model for learning—one that will help recruit and retain students in the sciences.

“It is a new 21st century model of research-based education,” Bill Davis, associate dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Veterinary Medicine, who along with his School of Biological Sciences colleague Patrick Carter, applied for SEA membership. “Students like James and Amy who have been part of this pilot will want more of this kind of training. It is our obligation to give them that.”

To see the viruses the students discovered and named, visit http://phagesdb.org/institutions/WSHS.