Microbiology Laboratory Uses Tiny Earth Curriculum in Preparation for World AMR Awareness Week
World AMR Awareness Week is held between November 18 and 24 each year to highlight the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which occurs “when bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites change over time and no longer respond to medicines, making infections harder to treat and increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness, and death” (World Health Organization).
Educators use this week to not only bring light to the problem of AMR, but also get students thinking about possible solutions. To Erika Hamilton, Director of Microbiology Laboratory Teaching Services at the College of Natural Sciences’ Department of Microbiology, this week of awareness came as an opportunity.
“One of the biggest challenges in science undergraduate education is giving all students a chance at an authentic research experience,” Hamilton argued. “Though research labs take on numerous undergraduate researchers, there is not enough space to accommodate all students. Authentic research experiences that are offered early in a student’s academic career have been shown to increase retention in STEM fields, especially among first-generation and minority students.”
To provide such an authentic research experience related to AMR for her Microbiology 312 course, General Microbiology Laboratory, Hamilton turned to a curriculum-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) called Tiny Earth, meant to inspire students to “engage in scientific research while addressing some of the most pressing global challenges of our century—the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics, a rapid decline in soil health, and an underrepresentation of diversity among scientists.”
Using Tiny Earth, students collected soil and used concepts and techniques learned earlier in class to isolate antibiotic-producing bacteria from this soil. These antibiotic producers are identified using 16S rRNA sequencing. Students then explore their isolates in a variety of ways, such as: investigating their microbe’s metabolism, oxygen use, or adenosine triphosphate (ATP) generation methods; working to extract the antibiotic from their producer for activity testing; determining whether or not their strain is actually antibiotic-resistant itself; or exploring other microbiological concepts like chemotaxis, biofilm formation, or quorum sensing. At the end of the semester, students summarize all of their work in a poster, which is a visual synopsis of their Tiny Earth project.
“Since participation in research is so important for students, I wanted to add a CURE into my General Microbiology Laboratory course,” explained Hamilton. “As this is a required course for Microbiology majors, it ensures that all of our majors are able to participate in a research experience. Tiny Earth encompasses half of a semester of work. In the first half of the semester, we cover techniques and concepts students will need to not only thrive in microbiology, but also successfully work on their Tiny Earth project. Tiny Earth is an excellent fit for our majors, as it reflects the breadth and depth of the microbiology major.”
For Hamilton, Tiny Earth proved to be a successful tool in emphasizing the importance of AMR among those in the UMass microbiology major: “Students examine the ongoing bacterial antibiotic resistance crisis, as well as the impending soil crisis that our world is facing. This exposes students to both medical and environmental microbiology, as well as the biotechnology methods they will need to succeed as scientists.”