Brief Bioinform. 2017 Jan;18(1):145-159. doi: 10.1093/bib/bbv113.

Making authentic science accessible – the benefits and challenges of integrating bioinformatics into a high-school science curriculum

Machluf Yossy1,2, Gelbart Hadas1,2, Ben-Dor Shifra3, Yarden Anat1

1 The Department of Science Teaching, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 7610001, Israel.

2 Currently at the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education (RAMA), Ramat Gan 5252006, Israel.

3 The Bioinformatics Unit, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 7610001, Israel.

Correspondence should be addressed to Yossy Machluf, E.mail:



Despite the central place held by bioinformatics in modern life sciences and related areas, it has only recently been integrated to a limited extent into high-school teaching and learning programs. Here we describe the assessment of a learning environment entitled ‘Bioinformatics in the Service of Biotechnology’. Students’ learning outcomes and attitudes toward the bioinformatics learning environment were measured by analyzing their answers to questions embedded within the activities, questionnaires, interviews and observations. Students’ difficulties and knowledge acquisition were characterized based on four categories: the scientific field that each question stems from (biology, bioinformatics or their combination), the required domain-specific knowledge (declarative, procedural, strategic or situational), the associated cognitive-process dimension (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create), and the type of question (open-ended or multiple choice). Analysis of students’ cognitive outcomes revealed learning gains in bioinformatics and related scientific fields, as well as appropriation of the bioinformatics approach as part of the students’ scientific ‘toolbox’. For students, questions stemming from the ‘old world’ biology field and requiring declarative or strategic knowledge were harder to deal with. Analysis of students’ affective outcomes revealed positive attitudes toward bioinformatics and the learning environment, as well as their perception of the teacher’s role. Complementary analyses of assessment tool for bioinformatics learning as well as teachers’ beliefs and instructional strategies uncover linkages between these and the bioinformatics learning environment characteristics as well as learning processes and outcomes. Insights from these analyses yielded implications and recommendations for curriculum design, classroom enactment, teacher education and research. For example, we recommend teaching bioinformatics in an integrative and comprehensive manner, through an inquiry process, linking it to the wider science curriculum, and making coherent and explicit coordination between the research strategy, the diverse types of knowledge, and the ‘worlds’ of biology and bioinformatics.



The emerging interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics – broadly defined as ‘research, development, or application of information technologies, computational tools and approaches for expanding the understanding and use of the complex, diverse and rapidly growing repository of life sciences data’ – has revolutionized and redefined how modern scientific research is carried out and has had an enormous impact on biotechnology, medicine, agriculture, industry and related areas. Bioinformatics should become as influential to science education, not only at the university level but already at the high-school level. This should be of interest and concern to both the scientific community, which is eager for bioinformatics-literate individuals equipped with 21st-century skills and knowledge that will pursue careers in the life sciences, and to the educational community, which focuses on preparing the next generation of informed citizens.

The challenge of bringing the complex and contemporary science of bioinformatics to the high-school classroom has only begun to be addressed in the recent years. The challenge is related to as diverse aspects as curriculum design, classroom enactment, teacher education, and students’ learning and effective outcomes [1, 2]. Our recent studies shed new light on these issues, and will be deliberated hereafter.


Bioinformatics in Israel

An innovative web-based bioinformatics learning environment, termed “Bioinformatics in the Service of Biotechnology”, was developed [3]. In the learning environment, both pedagogy and technology were recruited for first-hand active learning processes and educational purposes aimed at engaging students in scientifically authentic inquiry-based activities in biotechnology, approaching real-world problems, using diverse bioinformatics tools and databases, while acquiring and applying modern scientific practices (skills, knowledge and modes of thinking) [1]. The rationale, guidelines and design principles underlying the development of the learning environment, as well as the core units (introduction, learning activities, virtual “bioinformatics toolbox”, educational games, glossary, assessment, teachers’ guide and teachers’ interface) of the learning environment and the spread of the selected bioinformatics tools were previously described in details [1, 2].

The bioinformatics learning environment was aimed at introducing bioinformatics into a high-school biotechnology majors’ curriculum. It was designed and developed in light of, and in alignment with, the desired concepts, core ideas, scientific practices to be acquired through bioinformatics learning in high school, the standards and practical objectives for bioinformatics education which were outlined by a steering committee (composed of experts from the fields of bioinformatics, biology, science education, computer sciences, the national supervisor of high-school biotechnology education at the Israeli Ministry of Education and leading high-school biotechnology teachers).

In Israel, approximately 1,600 10th-grade students choose to join a 3-year track specializing in biotechnology each year (of approximately 100,000 10th-grade students overall across the country). The curriculum for biotechnology majors includes obligatory topics such as genetic engineering and biochemistry, and the elective topics of immunodiagnostics and advanced laboratories. Bioinformatics has been introduced into the national Biotechnology curriculum (60 h, 12th grade) from the 2011-12 academic year, comprising 12% of the total grade matriculation examination in Biotechnology.


The framework

We proposed a framework (Figure 1) for characterizing bioinformatics educational materials and outcomes, based on four criteria [1]: 1) the scientific field that each question stems from (biology, bioinformatics or their combination), 2) the type of domain-specific knowledge required to answer each question (declarative, procedural, situational, strategic; [4]), 3) the associated cognitive-process dimension (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create; [5]), and 4) the type of question (open-ended or multiple-choice).



FIGURE 1: Description of the four criteria of the framework for classifying and characterizing bioinformatics educational materials and outcomes.


The feasibility of this framework was confirmed by three independent analyses:

(I) Analysis of the rationale and design of an assessment tool for bioinformatics learning, which was developed by biotechnology teachers. It revealed that the assessment tool represents characteristics of authentic modern scientific research and that teachers appropriate the new bioinformatics curriculum by extending its roots to the ‘traditional’ curriculum [6];

(II) Analysis of the learning materials, namely questions embedded in two selected scientifically authentic bioinformatics activities from the bioinformatics learning environment, which demonstrated an agreement between the design of the activities and their pedagogical goals [1]. For example, in the opening activities (termed ‘in-depth activities’) most questions stem from the bioinformatics approach (mainly solely, but also in combination with a biological approach), deal with procedural knowledge, and require a cognitive process of understanding or application [1]. However, in the closing activities (termed ‘integrated activities’) many questions stem from the bioinformatics approach (these in combination with a biological approach are more abundant), deal with strategic knowledge, and require a higher cognitive process of evaluation or creation, are more abundant (data not shown); and

(III) Assessment of the impact of using these materials on students’ cognitive and affective outcomes, in terms of both students’ successes and difficulties/challenges [2]. This analysis revealed (Figure 2) higher average achievements in multiple-choice questions (over open-ended ones), in questions that stem from the field of bioinformatics – solely or in combination with the field of biology (over these stem from the field of biology), in questions that require the use of procedural or situational knowledge (over these that require the use of declarative or strategic knowledge) and in questions that are associated with lower cognitive-process dimensions such as ‘Remember’, ‘Understand’ or ‘Apply’ (over these associated with higher cognitive-process dimensions such as ‘Analyze’, ‘Evaluate’ or ‘Create’). In contrast to teachers’ (and perhaps also some curriculum developers and science education researchers) expectations, our findings revealed that students dealt properly with questions addressing the knowledge and skills of the ‘new bioinformatics world’, whereas those of the ‘old biological world’ or these of the combined ‘worlds’ were harder to deal with. It suggests students’ difficulties lie in integrating declarative knowledge, mostly in biology, with procedural knowledge, mostly in bioinformatics, and strategic knowledge of the research plan with both knowledge types, along with the application of technical skills of using bioinformatics tools and higher-order thinking, namely evaluation and interpretation of findings to provide meaning [2].



FIGURE 2: Assessment of students’ performances during the bioinformatics activities revealed the characteristics of questions which are easy to deal with and the challenging ones.


In addition, analysis of pre- and post-activity questionnaires revealed that engagement with the bioinformatics activities promoted students’ acquisition of knowledge (biological content knowledge), improved their problem solving skills (including coordination of strategic and declarative knowledge), as well as enhanced appropriation of the bioinformatics approach as part of their ‘scientific research tools’. These can be considered as aspects of content mastery, in both general (scientific) and specific (bioinformatics) domains, and dignify adoption of authentic scientific research.


Future directions

These findings are in line with our previous reports that engagement in a simulation of authentic scientific research [7] requires continuous integration of scientific facts and bioinformatics procedures while reasoning scientifically and making decisions [8]. Such coordination and use of different knowledge dimensions, and mainly strategic knowledge, is not typically found in regular school tasks, and therefore requires support and guidance from the teacher [8, 9]. Scaffolding is also essential but only as complementing the teachers’ role, rather than replacing the teachers (data not shown).

Indeed, our preliminary later findings indicate the importance of teachers’ beliefs and of their instructional strategies to their students’ gain of knowledge, mainly with regard to these aspects in which they face difficulties, and also to their attitudes towards bioinformatics learning. Analysis of students’ performances, teachers’ interviews, teaching materials and records of lessons’ observations, revealed that differences in students’ learning outcomes and attitudes may be attributed to the teachers and to the teaching characteristics. For example, students of Class-1 outperformed students of Class-2 in all kinds of questions, mainly questions in which students faced difficulties. They also hold more positive attitudes towards bioinformatics learning, mainly with regard to the teachers’ role, navigation through the learning environment and using its units to acquire knowledge, and enjoying the learning process. The teacher of Class-1 perceived the main teaching goal to promote students motivation, to provide the research overview and to ‘make connections’. This teacher emphasized connections between the different steps of the research as well as connections between different kinds of knowledge. Therefore, this teacher mainly focused on coherent and explicit coordination between the research strategy, previous biological declarative knowledge, and new bioinformatics procedures. In contrast, the teacher of Class-2 perceived the main teaching goal as to make understanding of research which utilizes bioinformatics tools. This teacher mainly focused on separated units of either research strategy or procedural knowledge or declarative knowledge. While the former teacher mainly acted as a ‘partner-mentor’ taking an active-insider position [10] and using a dialogic discourse [11], the later teacher mainly acted as a ‘monitor’ taking a passive-outsider position [10] and using an authoritative discourse [11] (data not shown).


Concluding remark

Bioinformatics education at the high-school level holds great promises and opportunities, alongside challenges. Our (and other) accumulative experiences indicate that the bioinformatics learning environment described here enables high school students to acquire a scientific toolbox containing bioinformatics-specific knowledge and skills, as well as general research practices – key components of scientific literacy for both informed citizens and future life science researchers.



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