Professor seeks to change teaching of science

March 4, 2009

Littleton - Michael Bilozur is on a mission.

The Littleton resident and Regis College Associate Professor wants to engage his biology students more fully in a journey of exploration and discovery. And he devoted his recent sabbatical semester to developing laboratory exercises to achieve just that.

Testing and observing are standard elements in a traditional laboratory course. Professor Bilozur wants his students engaged more actively.

“I want students to be involved at the onset of a project. I can present them with problems and background information, but I want them to understand why they’re doing certain procedures,” he said. “Experiential learning means that they can chart the course themselves based on what they want to find out. If a lab exercise yields two different results, I’ll provide them guidance, but I want them to figure out ‘what does it mean.’ It is they who should chart the next step,” he said.

Professor Bilozur is pleased to see microbiology students, for example, get excited when asked to identify the species of different cultures. They have to determine what tests to do and in what sequence.

The laboratory project he uses is called "Determination of a Bacterial Unknown." Students learn a variety of differential staining and culture techniques during the first two months of the laboratory. They are then given a culture of an unknown species. As they complete their first round of stains and culture, they begin to narrow down the possibilities. Based on the list of possible species, they must then choose the specific battery of tests that will allow them to distinguish among the possibilities. What emerges in their laboratory report is a logical narration of their process of deduction.

“My goal is for them to ask me for what they need, not to ask me ‘what do I need to do?’” he said. “I want them to be more self-sufficient.”

Getting students in the habit of thinking through problems themselves will prepare them for undergraduate independent study and research projects, but the discipline can have an impact beyond its application in the sciences. There are many fields where the challenge is to identify a problem, formulate possibilities and test conclusions. Such skills are central to a rigorous approach to scholarship.

Professor Bilozur derives satisfaction from infusing students with a sense of excitement about the process of scientific research. “The more you know the basics, the better you’ll be,” he explains.

He wants his students to know cell structure and physiology to understand what goes wrong in a disease like cancer. He is fascinated with the search for genes associated with autism and shares with his students his excitement about the links between their work on the basics and some future cure for Parkinson’s disease or diabetes.

His approach to the study of heart function suggests such linkage. Professor Bilozur is working with three seniors on a chick embryology project. To prepare, students read about congenital defects in human heart. They then work with fertile chick eggs, incubated a few days, in which the hearts are beginning to form.

All have a long-term interest in understanding the early development of the heart, as a means of determining what might go wrong with certain congenital heart defects. A particular area of inquiry is the ability of the heart to respond to neurotransmitters.

Ashley Elliott is interested in the development of the ability of the heart to beat on its own. She will focus on the activation of the specific ion channels that are needed for pacemaker activity.

Hsiu-Yin Hsiao is interested in how the control of heart rate develops. She will focus on the timing of expression of neurotransmitter receptors.

Kristin Winsett is interested in the signal molecules and genetic controls that orchestrate the construction of a four-chambered heart from a single pulsitile tube. She will study the signal molecule bone morphogenetic protein, which has several distinct functions in development, including heart formation.

After 16 years at Regis, teaching literally thousands of students, Professor Bilozur continues to work on shaping lab course work to make it ever more meaningful to his students, whether they go into science, health care or other, unrelated careers.

“I hope that whatever they carry away in their heads will help them to be better in their chosen professions and make a difference,” he said.