New BIT Course is Working with Students to Address the E-Waste Problem

Biotechnology is a truly unique field because it touches so many other fields- in science and beyond. While this is clear in all of the BIT courses, a new course, BIT 295 Biotechnology and Sustainability, drives this idea home by teaching students not only about biotechnology, but also about how it interacts with sustainability efforts and the broader world. Co-taught by Dr. Goller and Dr. Sjogren, the course introduces students to the field more broadly and then focuses specifically on the problem of electronic waste, or e-waste, and how biotechnology can be used to solve it.

Electronic waste
What happens to our electronic waste? Description: Pile of electronic waste including keyboards, fans, a monitor, and circuit boards. Image from Canva.com

The course was first conceived by Dr. Goller after being inspired by the Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions course, which is a multidisciplinary course designed for incoming students. The version of the Wicked Problems class that took place over the most recent winter break focused on global change and featured experts from many backgrounds, including history and ecology. While the Biotechnology and Sustainability course isn’t quite as interdisciplinary, the intentional blending of different perspectives appealed to Dr. Goller. “I liked that there were a lot of speakers and researchers engaging directly with students,” he said. Once he had the initial idea for the course and a vision for what he wanted it to look like, Dr. Sjogren joined him to work on turning it into a reality. 

Since sustainability is such a broad area, they decided to narrow their focus to e-waste and how to use biotechnology to degrade it. The course topics start off very broad, with an introduction to electronic waste, before narrowing down to biotechnology and its role in addressing this problem. The students then get a crash course in experimental design before conducting experiments of their own. “Dr. Goller had this great idea from the beginning,” Dr. Sjogren said, “where we’re trying to engage people in the awesome power of science by meeting them at the level they’re at.” Because the course is designed primarily for first-year students, they designed the flow and focus of the class with the assumption that many of their students have no background in lab work or in biotechnology in general. They also end the course by discussing how students can communicate their current and future research with the general public.

We’re trying to engage people in the awesome power of science by meeting them at the level they’re at.

Dr. Carly Sjogren

Throughout the semester, they had students complete five case studies focused on the ethics of biotechnology. They have each taught BIT 501 Ethical Issues in Biotechnology, which made it easy for them to write and adapt a total of ten ethics case studies for this class. And they received support from the NSF-ENCOUR network, which aims to help teachers integrate ethics discussions into science courses. Students were able to choose five of the ten case studies to complete and submit whenever was best for them. Dr. Goller described it as a “choose your own adventure” assignment, because students could choose the case studies that were interesting to them. And they provided students with a clear rubric that laid out exactly what they should address in their assessment of the case study, so that students knew what was expected of them.

The lab portion of the course consists of six topics, most of which last for about two weeks. Since there is no prerequisite for the course, Dr. Goller and Dr. Sjogren allowed for more than a month of introductory lab work before students started designing their own experiments. The main projects that students work on in the course focus on using microbes to get rid of e-waste. “I’m a microbiologist,” Dr. Goller said, “so I’m really excited that students get to spend a whole semester working with microbes to digest e-waste.” Having a full semester, rather than a half semester like most BIT courses, means that they can go a bit more slowly and let students move at their own pace. They also built in time to allow students to troubleshoot and redesign their experiments when, or if, something goes wrong. “Everything about the pandemic sucks, but I have noticed that it’s made students more flexible and adaptable,” said Dr. Sjogren. “Those are both really important skills for scientists, and we want to encourage that in this course.”

Both Dr. Goller and Dr. Sjogren agree that co-teaching the course has improved the experience not only for them, but also for the students. Their teaching styles are similar enough that they can work together easily, but also still bring different perspectives. “We’re able to be really conversational with each other and the students,” Dr. Goller said. While students were initially hesitant to ask for help, they grew more confident throughout the semester, partially because of the non-demanding environment their instructors created. “I think there’s this really really great culture in the classroom between the students,” Dr. Sjogren said. “They come to office hours and meet outside of class for a weekly study group, and I’m like, ‘yes!’ It’s just such a great community.”

They also wanted to do outreach with the course, so they recruited Amy Dinh and Rabeya Tahir to serve as BIT 295 Ambassadors. The ambassadors worked directly with the class a few times, but their main focus was on community events designed to educate people about e-waste. These events, called Science Sprints, featured a guest speaker along with presentations from the Ambassadors. “People don’t realize how critical it is for us to recycle electronics because they are unaware of the harmful effects that exist because of accumulation of e-waste,” Amy said. Amy and Rabeya planned the events with Dr. Goller and Dr. Sjogren, located the speakers, and promoted it with posters. Even though the events were held over Zoom, they still tried to make it as interactive and engaging as possible for attendees. Amy enjoyed working with the BIT 295 course because “the topics we’re promoting are so overlooked, but they’re also so important.”

The topics we’re promoting are so overlooked, but they’re also so important.

Amy Dinh, BIT 295 Student Ambassador

Designing an interdisciplinary course that is accessible to students with no previous lab work, or even a background in science in some cases, is challenging, to say the least. But Dr. Goller and Dr. Sjogren worked together this semester to create a class that introduced students to biotechnology and allowed them to do their own research. Besides gaining hands-on research experience, they hope that students learned to use the scientific method and that nothing about science is linear. Something will inevitably go wrong during a study, and they’ve helped students develop the skills they need to adapt and persevere through those setbacks. In the future, they hope to see more students from non-science majors, Dr. Goller said. Dr. Sjogren added, “having students from lots of different backgrounds makes better science.” And having multiple perspectives can add to their discussions about science communication and ethics. BIT 295 will be offered again during the Fall 2022 semester, so incoming and returning students can take advantage of this opportunity to learn about biotechnology in a thoughtful and interdisciplinary course.