Teaching bioinformatics: A student-centred and problem based approach

Yun-Can Ai, Neville Firth, Lars Jermiin


Bioinformatics is one of the fastest growing interdisciplinary sciences of the late 20th and early 21st century. For many students, bioinformatics is such a new discipline that they will not necessarily have the required background knowledge. It is therefore necessary to build bridges for students with diverse backgrounds. This paper describes teaching a bioinformatics course, explains what bridges needed to be built, and provides some examples of how the approaches of student-centred teaching and problem based learning could have been used in teaching this course using WebCT as the delivery tool. To understand the major concepts of bioinformatics, two conceptual frameworks are used: similarity, which enables analysis of predictions about structure/function; and dissimilarity, that allows inference of evolutionary history based on distance. These attributes are used as examples of core modules (the bridges), because all analyses need to be undertaken in appropriate biological context but involve multiple disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, computer science, and information technology, that need to be integrated into biology. The course focuses on three aspects: (i) to assist students with computing or related backgrounds understand the difficult core concepts of biology; (ii) to build critical understanding of the key mathematical and statistical principles that are crucial to bioinformatics; and (iii) to give all students hands-on training by allowing them to explore key issues using dominant bioinformatics platforms. Using these bridges, students should be able to develop the skills of creative experts rather than those of handy technicians.

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