A Criticism of the Microbiology and Immunology Curriculum

To whoever may be reading this: Do not worry, this article will not be too long. I only have a few main points to make anyways. Obviously, as you read this, you will see the irony in this first statement.

Recently, I just finished the second last MICB class I will ever take. That class is MICB418, and I must say, it was representative of every aspect of the MBIM program that I have grown to dislike.

Mark my words, it is “grown” to dislike. When I first entered the Microbiology and Immunology program, I had high expectations. I thought that with a class of 80, and with many magnificent faculty in the department, the curriculum would be heavily focused on rigorous problem solving with a lesser focus on the minute details, to train us to become active learners who sought out new applications, able to synthesize new knowledge into our own understanding of content material. Instead, this was not to be.

Rather, the more MICB courses I took, the more I realized that there was a heavy focus on memorization of established knowledge and the regurgitation of what we know. This, I have come to know, and I have specific evidence to back me up.

This evidence comes in the form of our examinations. A course’s examination is reflective of its instructor’s learning objectives. If the instructor is more interested in ensuring that we have learned facts, then the examination will reflect so. On the contrary, if the instructor is interested in us developing critical thinking and problem solving ability, then similarly, their exams will reflect so.

In Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge and comprehension form the basic levels of understanding available. In an examination scenario, such levels of knowledge would be examined with questions requiring us to “describe”, “explain” and “name”. In our MICB300, MICB302, and MICB324 examinations, a good 60%, maybe even more, of the questions were focused on such kinds of questions, questions that could be answered with 1-2 sentences, sometimes even 1-2 words maximum.

On the contrary, the number of application questions (i.e. questions that ask us to take information that we know and apply them elsewhere) were few. This is the one part that I do not understand. Why are we being asked to memorize and recall information? Are memory skills the main skill we are being asked to develop?

Granted, one may say that we need to become familiar with the language of each discipline. Certainly, this is very important. To give an example of this importance, I will invoke the Genetics courses, BIOL334 (Basic Genetics) and 335 (Molecular Genetics). We are asked to understand what are things like inheritance, independent segregation, molecular markers and restriction maps, but nowhere are we asked to “define” them in an examination. Indeed, becoming familiar with the language is a necessary pre-requisite to being able to solve problems. Yet, this presents to us one issue.

Anywhere, anytime, with an adequate internet connection, we are able to check up definitions of things we don’t know. We can check up what IL-17 does, if we ever forget it. We can easily check up the biochemical pathways that methanogens use for metabolizing methane. We can easily check up what MreB and ParM do in E. coli. In a modern world, we needn’t memorize these things, because we can easily check them up anywhere, anytime.

So is it really necessary for us to be tested on matters such as the biochemical activity of AAA+ proteins? Do we really need to be asked to memorize all of these facts established within the context of current scientific models? I think not, and I do not see any reason why the department cannot move its courses towards a more problem-based curriculum.

In the 1950s, molecular genetics (according to Dr. Craig Berezowsky), was all about the Lac operon, memorizing every fact that was known and established about it. This has a certain MICB324, 306 and 302 ring to it. Yet, the Genetics faculty (Drs. George Haughn, Craig Berezowsky, Tom Griggliati for the most recent course) were able to tailor their curriculum towards a problem-based approach, requiring skills that were more than just an ability to memorize. In the most recent BIOL335 examination, I felt we were not required to memorize more than 10% of the material taught to us; the rest were principles of genetics that were taught to us using specific examples, but with the principles extrapolated out and made clear. Our examinations were not like 10 essay questions requiring us to regurgitate material; rather, they were like 10 puzzles that we were asked to solve, to provide the simplest, most coherent and most logical explanation for the phenomenon given.

I do not see why the Microbiology and Immunology faculty are not able to do this in their undergraduate curriculum. I can only think up a few reasons – either the faculty have adopted a lackadaisical attitude towards undergraduate education, opting for easy examination and grading systems (one-word answers are certainly easy to mark), or they have not given enough thought about how we could be trained to become better creative thinkers, knowledge synthesizers and active learners.

A department like Microbiology and Immunology is uniquely positioned to train up outstanding undergraduates, but this opportunity has not been seized. Rather, much talent has either been wasted or turned away. I am an example of a student who would rather learn principles and concepts and leave the minute details to independent learning, but I have been turned away from the program because its curriculum was not challenging enough. Here, I would like to suggest a few modifications to the program curriculum that would make the courses more attractive.

Lecture courses can be used to teach technique theories and principles of knowledge discovery within each discipline in addition to basic concepts (there should not be many) listed as educational goals, rather than dumping out facts like the names, habitat and biochemical pathways of microorganisms in the sea environment.

For example, in a course like immunology, certain tools are uniquely available to immunologists such as FACS, Immunofluorescence, RT- and qPCR, histology, antibiotic selection, genetic transformation, knockout mice etc. These can be taught in greater depth, with a focus on the applications and limitations of each technique. Certain immunological principles can be emphasized, such as the need for cellular activation, the logic behind why different immunological pathways are invoked (e.g. Th1 vs. Th2 pathways) at different times, autoimmunity and a few of its general mechanisms. Certainly this is not an exhaustive list, and a few more general concepts can be added on.

When examining us, we could be asked to propose a model of how a certain disease is combated, based on the information given to us, with justifications of each critical junction in our proposed model. Another way to examine us is to require us to devise the best experimental design to investigate an immunological problem using a limited number of tools, justifying why each general step in the protocol is necessary. Alternatively, we could be given two or more sets of data from a problem-based investigation using different techniques, and be asked to evaluate which set of data would be more trustworthy and reliable based on the techniques used, and then be asked to propose a working model that fits the constraints of current knowledge.

Lab courses can be harnessed to give us practical experience on the techniques used, so that we may appreciate better the material taught inside our courses. This would require coordination between the lab instructors and the lecture instructors in the department, so that the content is taught in a timely fashion rather than delayed till a further term.

With such a teaching model, we will not be required to memorize simple facts; in fact, such facts can be provided to us if necessary on the examination. I believe that such an examination model will train us to become better scientific thinkers, who are able to think critically about the material we are learning, rather than rote memorizers who have not been given the opportunity or time to explore the learned material in our own creative fashion. Thinking skills, not facts about the immune system or a microbial community, are the things that are retained within us after we graduate, and these are the things that need to be inculcated into our undergraduate student body.

Science, at its frontier, is not dull or boring. It is exciting, and requires thinkers and problem solvers to answer questions yet unsolved. I was a Microbiology and Immunology student, but no longer am, because I have become disillusioned with the approach to teaching us. I wrote this because I know I have a calling to teaching, and I would really like to see the undergraduate curriculum in the Life Sciences be improved for the benefit of future generations to come.