Unique down to our microbes: assessment of an inquiry-based metagenomics activity

Metagenomics is an important method for studying microbial life. However, undergraduate exposure to metagenomics is hindered by associated software, computing demands, and dataset access. In this inquiry-based activity designed for introductory life science majors and nonmajors, students perform an investigation of the bacterial communities inhabiting the human belly button and associated metagenomics data collected through a citizen science project and visualized using an open-access bioinformatics tool. The activity is designed for attainment of the following student learning outcomes: defining terms associated with metagenomics analyses, describing the biological impact of the microbiota on human health, formulating a hypothesis, analyzing and interpreting metagenomics data to compare microbiota, evaluating a specific hypothesis, and synthesizing a conceptual model as to why bacterial populations vary. This activity was implemented in six introductory biology and biotechnology courses across five institutions. Attainment of student learning outcomes was assessed through completion of a quiz and studentsí presentations of their findings. In presentations, students demonstrated their ability to develop novel hypotheses and analyze and interpret metagenomic data to evaluate their hypothesis. In quizzes, students demonstrated their ability to define key terms and describe the biological impact of the microbiota on human health. Student learning gains assessment also revealed that students perceived gains for all student learning outcomes. Collectively, our assessment demonstrates achievement of the learning outcomes and supports the utility of this inquiry-based activity to engage undergraduates in the scientific process via analyses of metagenomics datasets and associated exploration of a microbial community that lives on the human body.