Over the last couple of decades, funding agencies have increased pressure on scientists to demonstrate that their research has some societal benefit. When the National Science Foundation established the Broader Impacts requirement (NSF, 1997) by merging two review criteria—utility or relevance of the project and its effect on the infrastructure of science and engineering—principal investigators largely ignored it (Lok, 2010). Then, in 2002, NSF began to return (without review) any proposal that didn’t explicitly address broader impacts (NSF, 2002).
Two years ago, we reported to Current readers about a novel ship-to-shore education and outreach program called the “Adopt-A-Microbe” (AAM) project (Orcutt et al. 2011). AAM focused on raising awareness of microscopic life—“microbes”—living in the deep marine subsurface to middle school audiences while engaging them in the science of the ocean-drilling program, both fundamental components of the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) mission. The AAM project was originally designed as an interactive set of web-based activities to be done in real-time in coordination with a research expedition, involving on-going interactions with scientists at sea.
Every summer, sixteen diverse undergraduate students from across the country participate in the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) sponsored Global Environmental Microbiology (GEM) course based at the University of Southern California (USC). The course is a four week, field-based, residential program where students gain first-hand experience in microbiological sample collection and laboratory techniques. Students finish the course having a new appreciation for the microbial world and of equal importance, collecting data and collaborating with peers. Students’ misconceptions about microbes are challenged through active participation to move their understanding beyond facts to “core concepts” (Bransford et al. 1999). This article outlines some of the conceptual changes microbiology can bring to science education as well as examines the GEM course from tenants of inquiry-based learning.