Home > News > Science from home: UD Microbiology students demonstrate resiliency and creativity

Science from home: UD Microbiology students demonstrate resiliency and creativity

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UD students bring classroom experiments to life

Cydni John, a senior biology major, used household kitchen items to collect sediment samples as part of her at-home lab work for UD’s Intro to Microbiology course. Photo courtesy Cydni John.

​Cydni John, a senior biology major, used household kitchen items to collect sediment samples as part of her at-home lab work for UD’s Intro to Microbiology course. Photo courtesy Cydni John.

What lab experiments can you recreate in your own home? As some UD students in the natural sciences discovered over the 2021-2022 — quite a few.

On a cool weekday morning, UD student Nathaniel Hunsinger filled his backpack with only the essentials for the school day: an empty plastic bottle, a set of mismatched measuring cups and some kitchen ladles. He grabbed a pair of dishwashing gloves, too, just in case. While this UD senior never imagined that he’d be digging for dirt in a nearby creek instead for his Intro to Microbiology class, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I really appreciated the use of the hands-on learning aspect for our at-home lab assignments,” said Hunsinger. “It’s allowed me to learn a lot and have fun doing it.”

Science from home

What started as a test initiative to bring the lab to summer students made for a fall semester of firsts across the disciplines of biology and chemistry — first online science class, first in-home lab experiments and first DIY microbial colony column to name a few.

Alenka Hlousek-Radojcic, an associate professor of biology, first thought of the idea of sending out at-home lab kits to students after bringing her Introductory Biology and Chemistry for Life Sciences courses online in the Spring 2020 semester. Working with Rebecca Boyer-Andersen, a lab coordinator for the Department of Biological Sciences, she implemented take-home lab packages for a summer honors course before positive student feedback warmed additional faculty to the idea.

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As part of a classroom assignment to create a Winogradsky column, UD student Nathaniel Hunsinger searched for sediment in a creek close to his home. Photo courtesy Nathaniel Hunsinger.

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Cutline 3: Microbiology students each received a science kit with some lab necessities before the semester began. The packages contained condiment cups and lids, microfuge tubes, sterile pipettes and a non-sterile pipette. As some substitutions had to be made for students learning from home, the package also included auger powder, beef cubes and a pair bamboo appetizer skewers. Photo courtesy UD Department of Biological Sciences.

Microbiology students each received a science kit with some lab necessities before the semester began. The packages contained condiment cups and lids, microfuge tubes, sterile pipettes and a non-sterile pipette. As some substitutions had to be made for students learning from home, the package also included auger powder, beef cubes and a pair bamboo appetizer skewers. Photo courtesy UD Department of Biological Sciences.

This past fall, Boyer-Andersen capitalized on the success of the at-home kits by leading their roll-out across the microbiology courses of faculty members Carlton Cooper and Ramona Neunabel. “Our focus all along has been to provide students with some real life, hands-on experiences,” said Boyer-Andersen. “Science is a hands-on endeavor, and given we were constrained by the pandemic, we were trying to look at ways that we could provide those hands-on experiences for students while they were safely in their home.”

Ultimately, department lab staff and faculty connected with enrolled students to coordinate safe delivery of each lab kit while the departments connected with each course funded the necessary postage. Microbiology students each received a science kit with some lab necessities before the semester began. The packages contained condiment cups and lids, microfuge tubes, sterile pipettes and a non-sterile pipette. As some substitutions had to be made for students learning from home, the package also included auger powder, beef cubes and a pair bamboo appetizer skewers.

“Students generally use sterile loops in the lab, but we ended up opting for appetizer skewers,” said Boyer-Andersen. “Then they would wrap the biodegradable loops in foil and boil them as a sterilization procedure so that we could use them to explore the aseptic technique from their own kitchen.

Like his classmates, Hunsinger was charged with crafting his own Winogradsky column, a miniature enclosed ecosystem designed to create bacteria not able to be grown under normal laboratory conditions. He added pond mud to a clear soda bottle to enrich the microbial communities of the sediment, mixed in an egg when he got home to allow for the creation of a sulfide gradient and the finishing touch — a carbon source of newspaper clippings — would eventually produce an oxygen gradient. With a little sun, Hunsinger soon had a bottle full of colorful layers of bacterial communities.

“The department has done an excellent job converting the laboratory aspect of the class into an at-home format,” said Hunsinger, who — like his classmates — used the auger powder, a food-grade substitute for gelatin, to create homemade media, while the beef cubes served as a way to incorporate a yeast extract into his column.

The lessons learned through the semester are valuable ones for both faculty and students, but at the end of the day Boyer-Andersen says students responded positively to taking a hands-on approach to science.

“These days — with a little creativity — the sky is the limit when it comes to the experimentation and research you can do from home,” added Hlousek-Radojcic. “After all, this is science the way people have done it for hundreds of years — long before we ended up in these fancy labs with all of this equipment.”

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Intro to Microbiology student Joseph Nwobi shows off his sediment collection as he takes to the outdoors to complete his Winogradsky column. Photo courtesy Joseph Nwobi.

Intro to Microbiology student Joseph Nwobi shows off his sediment collection as he takes to the outdoors to complete his Winogradsky column. Photo courtesy Joseph Nwobi.

UD Department of Biological Sciences

Reflected in both its teaching portfolio and collaborative research accomplishments, the UD Department of Biological Sciences represents a multidisciplinary field of scholars, researchers and scientists. With a distinguished history in scholarship and teaching and significant external research funding, the department delivers an undergraduate experience that combines classroom teaching and problem-based learning with hands-on classroom laboratory experience, as well as mentored original research in faculty laboratories to provide students with the skills and knowledge to succeed in their chosen career paths. The department maintains a vibrant and diverse collaborative research and teaching community with broad scientific interests across molecular biology and genetics, developmental biology, cell and tissue physiology, microbiology and science education.

Article by Chris Kelley. Unless noted otherwise, photos provided courtesy of the UD Department of Biological Sciences.

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​Intro to Microbiology student Joseph Nwobi shows off his sediment collection as he takes to the outdoors to complete his Winogradsky column. Photo courtesy Joseph Nwobi.

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Science from home: UD Microbiology students demonstrate resiliency and creativity