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diseases (1) and invisibility to the naked eye. Consequently, ... and fear of scientific terminology. ... by gaining a fuller picture of students' developing scientific.

Tips & Tools


Bacterial Monologue: An Engaging Writing Activity for Nonscience Majors Pengfei Song Institute for Core Studies, St. John’s University, Queens, NY 11439

INTRODUCTION Young adults who are at the prime of their health tend to despise or be apathetic about the presence of bacteria, partially due to the latter’s over-exaggerated connection to diseases (1) and invisibility to the naked eye. Consequently, professors who teach microbiology to nonscience major college students may face an audience with low motivation and fear of scientific terminology. As science and technology advance in microbiology, researchers have become more aware that the largely unknown bacterial community plays many beneficial roles of cardinal significance, and that previous anthropocentric investigations focusing on human health have created a nonrealistic view of the microorganisms in nature (1). For example, recent discoveries revealed that microbes drive the biogeochemical cycles in the ocean, determine Earth’s habitability, affect climate change (2), and modulate the onset of human cardiovascular diseases (4). If our students’ view of bacteria continues to dwell on the old knowledge, they will not be able to make informed decisions on critical issues from personal healthcare to public policy making. To engage students in microbiology learning, the first step is to get them interested. Among the many strategies to boost self-motivation, story writing in particular has been reported to be highly effective for students who do not enjoy science or experience difficulty in science (5). Additionally, story writing can help instructors to design better curricula by gaining a fuller picture of students’ developing scientific literacy, as reflective writings can reveal superficial or problematic conceptual understandings that other assessment methods do not easily show (5). An effective pedagogy to change students’ biased and deeply-rooted view is to have them “walk a mile” in the shoes of bacteria. To bacteria, humans are no more than an organic mass to be utilized for growth and reproduction. Thinking like a bacterium offers a different perspective of life, and is more true to the real science (1). Such a role-play exercise may also promote student engagement (6, 7). Corresponding author. Mailing address: Bent Hall 229, Institute for Core Studies, 8000 Utopia Parkway, Queens, NY 11439. Phone: 718-990-7435. Fax: 718-990-2686. E-mail: [email protected]

Here I report on an assignment that combines the two above-mentioned strategies to foster microbiology learning. The intended audiences for these tips are professors who teach nonscience majors, and those who teach introductory microbiology. The tips may apply to both classroom and laboratory teachings. In this activity, students impersonated a bacterium and explained the taxonomy, structure, growth, and growth control of the organism using simple terms. Based on a survey, students developed an appreciation of bacteria, demonstrated a deeper understanding of terminologies, and considered this exercise a more interesting and rewarding activity than other engaging pedagogies offered throughout the semester, including games, group discussions, movies, and field trips.

PROCEDURE The assignment Prior to the writing activity, students were briefly introduced to topics including bacterial taxonomy, cellular structure and function, bacterial growth, and growth control measures. In the assignment, a different bacterium was randomly assigned to each student. The complete list of bacteria, including both beneficial microbes and pathogens, can be found in Table 1, and new species are added to the list each semester. Students were asked to search scholarly articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals to collect information pertaining to the suggested topics listed in Table 2, then write a first-person narrative to introduce the organism. In the assignment description, points were clearly assigned to each specific topic in Table 2 to ensure complete coverage of the learning objectives listed in column 3. Proper citations and references were required wherever appropriate. The Wikipedia website was allowed for initial research, but was not allowed as a source of citation. Google Scholar ( com) was recommended for finding journal articles. Students were also given the opportunity to earn bonus points by drawing cartoons, writing poems, making models, videos, music, or any other form of creative work to reflect their understanding of the bacteria.

©2014 Author(s). Published by the American Society for Microbiology. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial – Share Alike 3.0 Unported License (, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use and distribution, provided the original work is properly cited.

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SONG: A WRITING ACTIVITY FOR NONSCIENCE MAJORS TABLE 1. Suggested list of bacterial species for the bacterial monologue activity. Alcaligenes eutrophus Arthrobacter globiformis Bacillus anthracis Bacteroides succinogenes Bifidobacterium bifidum Campylobacter jejuni Chlamydia trachomatis Clostridium botulinum

Epulopiscium fishelsoni Geobacter sulfurreducens Helicobacter pylori Lactococcus lactis Listeria monocytogenes Methylosinus trichosporium Mycobacterium tuberculosis Mycoplasma pneumoniae

Pseudomonas fluorescens Rhodococcus chlorophenolicus Rhodospirillum rubrum Ruminococcus albus Salmonella enteritidis Shewanella oneidensis Sporosarcina pasteurii Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus epidermidis Streptococcus mutans Synechococcus elongates Thiomargarita namibiensis Treponema pallidum Vibrio cholerae Vibrio fischeri Yersinia pestis

TABLE 2. Suggested topics to be included in the bacterial monologue writing assignment. Topics

Hints to Students

Learning Objectives

Meaning of My Name What do the root words in your name mean in Latin or Greek?

Understand the composition of binomial names and interpret the scientific names of bacteria

My Other Names

Has your name changed in history? What do non-scientists call you?

Understand the self-correcting nature of scientific knowledge; differentiate scientific names and common names

My Birth

When were you discovered? Who was your foster parent?

Appreciate the history of scientific discoveries; Understand why the discoverer is often called “Father of” something

My Home

Where are you commonly found? What is your growth environment like?

Recognize and explain the required factors for bacterial growth and survival

My Self Portrait

What do you look like under a microscope? What is your body shape? Do you have a joint twin? Are you tall or short, thin or fat?

Illustrate the microscopic appearance and behavior of the bacterium; understand the terms that describe bacterial shapes; recognize that microscopy images are often falsely colored

How Do I Travel

Are you a good swimmer? How do you swim? If you cannot swim, how do you move around?

Identify the structures of bacteria that allow motility; discriminate self motility from bacterial transmission routes

My City

Bacterial cities are called colonies. What does your city look like?

Differentiate macromorphology from micromorphology; interpret the key terms that describe colony morphologies

My Talent & Fame

What distinguishes you from other microbes? What makes you famous or notorious?

Recognize and appreciate the distinguishing features and various roles of bacteria to humans and to the ecosystem

My Addiction

Are you addicted to certain types of food? Do you smoke?

Recognize and appreciate bacterial utilization of certain chemicals for growth/survival; understand that bacterial survival may require gases other than oxygen; differentiate gas intake from gas production

My Enemy

What are you most afraid of? How does it harm you?

Recognize the chemicals and physical measures that can be used for bacterial growth control; understand the mechanism of the control measures

Practicalities Students were given two weeks to complete the assignment, and it was recommended that they seek help from the university library. Since it is a writing assignment, no safety issue was involved. In addition to learning about a specific bacterium, students developed better conceptual 56

understanding of key topics in microbiology, and practiced core skills of scientific inquiry, such as information literacy, critical thinking, and societal connection. Examples of drawings and a poem can be found in Figure 1. More examples of monologues, drawings, poems, music and models can be found at the following url: http://stjohns.

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Born in nineteen twenty four By J. K. Clark Among a carious sore But I seemed to leave a mark The Greeks say I’m twisted But it’s also how I appear, Chain-like and connected By tiny little spheres My people form in single strand But together we connect And our kingdom is grand Among the tissues of your mouth and teeth (in which we wreck!) Oh, my home, how it welcomes me With its cozy surrounding warmth Especially when it’s not clean Or brushed just once a month


Teeth, tongue, cheeks and gums Are the places in which I reside; Thirty percent or even sixty for some, Is the amount of surface where I tend to hide I cover those hard walls That protect your little teeth With plaque, acids, and all That make that enamel weak Sneaking and creeping I find my way in Through those pits and crevices, I am seeking For a place where I can perform my sin Rotting, decaying, causing cavities On those whites that were once pearly They’re now conquered by my mateys And we are not planning on leaving early. FIGURE 1. A sample poem on Streptococcus mutans (a) and two sample drawings from students representing Lactococcus lactis (b) and Bifidobacterium bifidum (c).



Through writing about one bacterium, students enhanced their conceptual understanding of key topics in microbiology, corrected their biased views of the roles of bacteria, and, more importantly, improved their attitudes toward science and science learning. Writing enabled students to take ownership and play an active role in the learning process. When students impersonated bacteria in the writings, it was as if they were telling their personal stories, one of the favorite activities of the increasingly self-centered net generation (3). In a semester-end survey, students stated that the reflective writing added new clarity to their thinking about microbes and to evaluating scientific discoveries. They also expressed their enjoyment in exercising their imagination and creativity while learning something new.

I thank the Faculty Writing Initiative of St. John’s University for providing invaluable feedback on an earlier version of this article. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author only. The author declares that there are no conflicts of interest.

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REFERENCES 1. Aziz, R. K. 2009. The case for biocentric microbiology. Gut Pathogens 1(16):1–6. 2. Falkowski, P. G., T. Fenchel, and E. F. Delong. 2008. The microbial engines that drive earth’s biogeochemical cycles. Science 320:1034–1039.

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SONG: A WRITING ACTIVITY FOR NONSCIENCE MAJORS 3. Konrath, S. H., E. H. O’Brien, and C. Hsing. 2011. Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: a meta-analysis. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 15(2):180–198. 4. Ott, S. J., et al. 2006. Detection of diverse bacterial signatures in atherosclerotic lesions of patients with coronary heart disease. Circulation 113:929–937. 5. Ritchie, S. M., L. Tomas, and M. Tones. 2010. Writing stories to enhance scientific literacy. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 33(5):685–707.


6. Scholl, P. A. 1986. The uses of impersonation. J. Teaching Writing 5(2):267–280. 7. Stroessner, S. J., L. S. Beckerman, and A. Whittaker. 2009. All the world’s a stage? Consequences of a roleplaying pedagogy on psychological factors and writing and rhetorical skill in college undergraduates. J. Educ. Psychol. 101:605–620.

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