Team:Queens Canada/Practices/Academics


BCHM 218: Introduction to Molecular Biology (Online)

Improving the online course experience with Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a student-centered, highly involved approach to education that evolved out of Case Western and McMaster Universities in the mid 1900s1. Initially used in medical and law education to help students master increasing amounts of material, PBL is also beneficial for undergraduates in sciences and engineering. Focusing on analysis, collaboration, and of course, problem solving skills, PBL requires students to understand course material at a deeper level than traditional examinations. To curb any doubts surrounding this method, several studies have been conducted that compare students' retention of course material using PBL and traditional examination methods. They have found PBL to be superior in both retention and understanding of the material2.

The goal behind PBL is to intentionally leave out information needed to solve a problem, thereby forcing students to actively search out new information and integrate this with the knowledge gained from course materials and the problem outlines1. While this approach may first intimidate students, by providing guiding questions, opportunities to collaborate with peers, and support from instructors, PBL can enrich the students learning experience and foster intellectual curiosity.

As teams like ours prepare for the iGEM competition, we get the opportunity to try and integrate knowledge of molecular biology, genetics, math, computing, and chemistry to solve a complex problem. We at QGEM felt this experience is extremely valuable: solving previously undefined problems is exciting and challenges us to expand our knowledge and collaboration skills. We wanted to provide this kind of stimulating opportunity to more students. Last year, QGEM 2014 introduced four PBLs to the introductory course in Molecular Biology, BCHM 218, at Queen's University. The students used their new biochemistry knowledge to tackle primer design, study Ebola vaccines, and rationalize drug design.

This year, we decided to take this a step further and engage even more students in the challenging, yet rewarding, process of Problem-Based Learning. We created four novel PBLs that were integrated into the online BCHM 218 course, offered through Queen's Center for Distance Studies in summer 2016. Our PBLs focus on applying molecular biology fundamentals to complex problems, and developing technical skills using Pymol and NCBI databases. Incorporating PBLs into an online course will encourage students in even the most remote locations to collaborate, think creatively, and critically analyze data, like they would as a part of an iGEM team.

APSC 100: Engineering Practice (Module 3: Engineering Design)

APSC 100 is a first year engineering practice course at Queen’s University. The design module, a 12-week project, offers students an introduction to team-based work, matching teams of 4-5 first year students with an upper year advisor and a community client. Students are guided through the design process as they work to solve open-ended design challenges often with emphasis on prototype development or system modeling.

This year, QGEM is partnering with APSC 100, for the first time, to offer a project with more biological basis. While engineering is a key component to our team’s project in both design and modeling, the team has traditionally struggled to breach the gap between the biological sciences and engineering within the school. We want strengthen this relationship between these two discplines within our school. By incorporating synthetic biology and the considerations of our work into an engineering project, we hope to introduce the students to the possibilities of merging applied science and more traditional research and promote interest in the biological applications of engineering.


1. Allen, D., & Tanner, K. (2003). "Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Learning Content in Context-Problem-Based Learning". Cell Biology Education. 73-81.

2. Albanese, M., & Mitchell, S. (1993). "Problem-based learning". Academic Medicine. 52-81.

3. APSC 100 image from