BYU professors: Students who study their 'microbiomes' are more engaged in class

Microbiomes, BYU study. (Photo: MGN)

(KUTV) — A group of professors from Brigham Young University have found that giving students access to their personal biological data has a significant impact on their learning experience, a news release states.

According to a summary of their experiment, the researchers found that students who have access to data regarding their own microbiome — which the release describes as "the trillions of tiny microorganisms that live in a person's gut, mouth and skin — are more likely to be engaged and interested in course material.

“Whenever you can have students looking at something about themselves, it increases their desire to understand and also hopefully what they take away from the class,” said study coauthor Steve Johnson, professor of microbiology and molecular biology at BYU.

According to a news release, microbiomes are influenced by a person's diet and lifestyle and are crucial to a person's health, because they can protect against disease.

"As scientists have learned more about their impact on our health, microbiomes have become an increasingly popular topic of study," the news release states.

Johnson, in addition to fellow molecular biology and microbiology professor Scott Weber and other colleagues monitored the attitudes or juniors and seniors from 400-level science courses, according to a news release. When the semester began, students had the option to either use their own personal information that was gained through a microbiome kit or use demo data. The majority of students chose to use the kits containing their own information.

Students swabbed areas of their bodies, such as the mouth, skin and nose, and submitted the kits to a company called uBiome. Once their kits were sequenced, the students could log into an account and see their raw data, which they could use to conduct further research.

“The data allow students to see which microbes are associated with certain body types or lifestyles and what percentage of those microbes they have,” Weber said. “It is helpful information because it lets students know what things they can do to take action. For example, the program may suggest eating more of one type of food to increase the presence of a particular helpful microbe.”

Students received a survey before, during and after the microbiome unit to determine how/if their interest and engagement was affected, a news release states.

The students who analyzed their microbiome data reported spending 31 percent more time researching the biome than students who chose the demo kit. Students who used the kids also saw an increase of confidence in their scientific reasoning skills and data interpretation abilities, the news release states. They also found the overall course more interesting and engaging.

One college senior who participated in the studio, identified as Josie Tueller, reported that using the microbiome kits made all class material more applicable.

“I felt more personally invested in learning about names of bacteria when I knew that things like Bacteroidetes and Akkermansia could be protective to my health,” Tueller said. “When we were learning about characteristics of bacteria, I could connect it to something I already knew about, instead of just random words.”

Johnson and Weber hope that finding more opportunities to apply such practices in other disciplines will improve student engagement in STEM fields and be a useful tool for inspiring a love for life-long learning, the news release states.

Other BYU professors who contributed to the study include Laura Bridgewater, Donald Breakwell, Jamie Jensen and Brent Nielsen.

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