Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
P: (540) 464-7207
F: (540) 464-7443

111 Smith Hall
Lexington, VA 24450

Thinking Like Scientists

Class Covers the Concepts Through Original Research

LEXINGTON, Va., June 6, 2014 – A new course in the VMI biology department, Ecological Biochemistry, is structured around conducting graduate-level scientific inquiry and transformed a class of students into a research team during spring semester.

“One of the goals that we have in our department is to give students scientific skills so that by the time they graduate one of the things they can do is be given a question and go investigate it,” said Maj. Anne Alerding, assistant professor of biology. “We’re teaching them how to think like scientists.”

The cadets designed their experiment to determine whether a certain soil bacteria, Serratia liquefaciens, could help Virginia soybean farmers use marginal lands contaminated with heavy metals. Alerding provided her students with a set of current articles on soybeans and their ecological interactions to inform their decision about what was possible for their experiment and allowed them to determine their hypothesis.

“For every piece of the puzzle there was literature to back up what we were doing. In the lecture they’re learning about real science – they’re reading the literature,” said Alerding. “Then in the lab I wanted them to do their own science.”

“It put everything into perspective; just coming up with a hypothesis is pretty hard. We went through multiple classes just figuring out what we were going to test and if it was actually feasible,” said Nina Srikongyos ’15. “There was a lot of prep work just to get to the experiment.”

The cadets worked in the lab as well as the new greenhouse located atop the newly renovated Maury-Brooke Hall, and their willingness to put in extra time helped make the experiment a reality.

“With a normal lab, you have your three hours and you’re done. For this lab there were times when I’d come in on a Saturday or a Sunday,” said H.P. Paultre ’15. “We put a lot of time into this.”

With eight cadets in the class, there was room for cadets to make significant contributions to the experiment based on their individual backgrounds and skills.

“We all just kind of found what we were interested in,” said Kurt Schommer ’15. “It really works out that we all have our own areas of interest. Everyone is so passionate and involved in their area. People care about the part that they’re working on, and we get good results.”

Throughout the semester, the cadets found ways to cooperate to get the most of their experiment.

“What’s interesting about this class is the very small class size,” said Schommer. “The whole class is just a team, and that allowed us to do this experiment and devise the whole thing by ourselves. You become a lot more independent working that way.”

While original research and experimentation is a common opportunity for individual cadets, working as a research team on an original experiment is something new for the biology department.

“They have this ownership in this project that no one else in our department has ever seen,” said Alerding. “As a team they were much stronger than if they had been working individually.”

Alerding has been impressed with the energy her cadets have put into the class and with the experience that they’re gaining.

“This has been an incredible experience for me. It’s been my favorite class to teach,” said Alerding. “I’ve seen the students grow in ways that I’ve never seen before. I think each one has taken away something new.”

Since the cadets’ experiment dovetails with research Alerding is performing on soybean cultivation, she was able to lend an added level of expertise to the project.

“The hard thing is doing research and teaching, and my model is you bring those areas together,” said Alerding. “My research makes me a better teacher, and my teaching makes me a better researcher.”

For at least one cadet in this course, this experience is providing a preview of future academic ambitions.

“We read this one article that I was really interested in about pine beetles and terpenes,” said Paultre, who will continue to study terpenes – compounds produced by some plants to defend against parasites – this summer with an expert at Virginia Tech. “From there on, I got really interested in the lab portion of the class, so I feel like Maj. Alerding really opened a door for me.”

– John Robertson IV