Wolbachia. This tiny bacteria is found in about one in five of the world’s insects. In some species, Wolbachia can cause males to die or change into females, while in others, its presence is necessary for reproduction.
Using Discover the Microbes Within!: The Wolbachia Project, students and teachers examine insects for the presence of Wolbachia, at the same time learning to conduct research the way scientists do. The project engages students in inquiry and real-world research, encourages nationwide participation in data collection on Wolbachia, and enhances students’ understanding and interest in biology.
EDC is evaluating Discover the Microbes Within!, focusing on students’ and teachers’ overall perspectives and whether the project ultimately increases their scientific knowledge.
“The information we have gathered shows the project to be an enjoyable experience, with the labs running very smoothly,” says EDC’s Daphne Minner. “It increases students’ competence in doing science and their understanding of the content being covered, as well as teachers’ understanding of scientific equipment, techniques, and the science itself.”
The first part of the project is a three-day professional development workshop at the Marine Biological Institute (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, during which high school biology teachers from around the country build their knowledge and skills in such areas as insect biodiversity, DNA sequencing and extraction, and bioinformatics.
The teachers then take what they learn back to their classrooms, typically implementing Discover the Microbes Within! in advanced placement classes over a two-week period in the spring. However, the project is flexible enough that individual components may be conducted throughout the school year as students cover a particular topic. Students collect insects and then use techniques such as DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction, and electrophoresis to determine whether the insects are infected with Wolbachia.
“Students naturally want to learn science the way science is done,” wrote MBL’s Seth Bordenstein in a feature article for Focus on Microbiology Education. “And students who conduct their own science will enhance their understanding of scientific inquiry while also collecting reliable data.”
For insects found to be carriers of Wolbachia, samples are sent to MBL for DNA sequencing and the results added to a database used by the scientific community to track the bacteria.
“Students are excited to be contributing to actual research and find collecting the insects to be one of the most engaging parts,” says Minner. “They find it frustrating that they do not always find Wolbachia, but frustration is part of doing science and being a scientist.”
The project and EDC’s evaluation of it is funded for five years by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Originally published on July 13, 2009