5 Creative Ways to Teach Bioinformatics that Pique Students’ Curiosity

Anjaney Kothari

Bioinformatics is a critical component of most biology and bioengineering curricula because of its diverse practical applications. From drug discovery and development to identification of species, the ever-growing applications of bioinformatics make it a dynamic, revolutionary field.

But the term ‘bioinformatics’ itself can be daunting for some beginners. And then come strange-sounding terms like BLAST, sequence alignment, and phylogenetic analysis – which can make even seasoned scientists somewhat nervous.

Needless to say, it is important that educators find creative ways to make bioinformatics an approachable topic for their students. Here, we list five engaging methods to teach bioinformatics that pique students’ curiosity while making the topic fun and easy.

1. Use Interactive Models to Simplify Concepts

Teaching bioinformatics is not only about the computational aspects of the field. It is also about the biological entities and features (like mRNA, cDNA sequences) on which professionals apply these computational tools. Biology and computer science can be an intimidating combination for students, but using interactive models can simplify bioinformatics.

Labster’s bioinformatics simulation introduces students to the biology of RNA-seq through an interactive animation. They get to learn about everything from mRNA and cDNA to BLAST and phylogenetics in a simplified, hands-on manner.

Excursion to the Amazon study area.

2. Unleash Fun with Games and Activities

Turning teaching from a one-way interaction to a multidimensional group activity can have a huge positive impact on students’ learning. Introducing suitable games and activities to teach a topic like bioinformatics is one way to make learning multidimensional and fun.

Labster’s bioinformatics simulation ntroduces a Mission-Impossible-type quest for students to pursue (should they accept it!) while learning about state-of-the-art technologies. The students must develop a novel antimalarial drug from a rare plant from the Amazon rainforest. With help from a virtual lab assistant sidekick, the students apply Next Generation Sequencing, BLAST, and phylogenetic analysis to identify unknown enzymes that help synthesize this drug.

Metabolic pathways in a virtual lab.
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3. Ease Learning Through Technology

Bioinformatics is an evolving field with new technologies always on the rise. Keeping up with these novel developments can be difficult for students in the conventional classroom setting. But what if technology itself could come to rescue? You can ease learning by infusing technology like simulations and animations into your lessons.

For example, Labster’s bioinformatics simulation teaches the students about highly advanced and sophisticated bioinformatics-related technologies such as RNA-seq through animations. The students not only apply the technology to a realistic scenario, but also learn about the underlying biology. Simulations like these make next-gen technologies easy to learn.

4. Inspire Students by Discussing Career Opportunities

Complex topics always tend to make students ask an existential question: “But when am I ever going to use this?” One way to inspire students to learn challenging concepts, including bioinformatics, is to answer this very question for them. Bring in the expertise of those who use bioinformatics in their profession. Urge them to share their work experiences to get the students excited about the topic.

This expert could be a clinical geneticist who uses bioinformatics to analyze a patient’s genome sequence to pinpoint disease risk. It could be a marine biologist who applies bioinformatics tools to study the effects of climate change on aquatic biodiversity. You could also highlight how being a bioinformatician is an independent career opportunity in itself.

5. Connect Topic to Real-World Applications

A fool-proof way to make a topic approachable is to connect it with real-world applications and scenarios. The bounty of real-world applications of bioinformatics is thus a major plus point for educators in this field.

For example, in Labster’s bioinformatics simulation, students partake in a real-world scenario to produce a plant-based antimalarial drug. They use bioinformatics to analyze mRNA molecules from different plant samples to identify the enzyme responsible for the drug’s biosynthesis. Such activities can introduce the students to how scientists apply bioinformatics in real life to solve the world’s problems.

Nucleotide in a virtual lab.

Final thoughts

Bioinformatics has the power to transform biology and medicine. And the techniques we have discussed here have the power to creatively transform how you teach bioinformatics to your students. They can make bioinformatics simpler, inspire students to pursue the field, and make learning a fun experience.

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