Meet the Metaorganism: Model project for digital teaching at Kiel University

CRC 1182 and communication design team from Kiel’s Science Communication Lab present novel learning app on metaorganism research

• Web-based learning app Meet the Metaorganism explains and visualises the interaction of host organisms and symbiotic microorganisms

• CRC 1182, Science Communication Lab and IPN cooperate to present the importance of host-microbe interactions to students and pupils

• Model project for digital teaching will initially be used in the training of biology students at Kiel University

All living beings on earth live in close symbiosis with a multitude of microorganisms that live in and on their bodies. Together they form a so-called meta-organism, the unity of host organisms and colonising bacteria, fungi and viruses. The interaction of host organism and microorganisms significantly influences host functions. Since 2016, scientists of the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1182 “Origin and Function of Metaorganisms” at Kiel University have been researching the consequences of this communication between hosts and microbes for health and disease.

For the general public, the significance of the highly complex interactions within a metaorganism remains difficult to comprehend and abstract. The members of the CRC 1182 therefore strive to communicate their field of research as comprehensibly as possible. The aim of the current project is to anchor metaorganism research in biological and medical education at school and university with the help of new design as well as teaching concepts – where it is still insufficiently taken into account. In close cooperation with communication designers from the Kiel Science Communication Lab (SciCom Lab) and educational researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN), the CRC 1182 has now created a new format of digital teaching on metaorganism research that is based on the visualisation of fundamental concepts of the research field. On Monday, 12 December, the development team from the SciCom Lab presented the resulting web application “Meet the Metaorganism” for the first time, which can now be used as an interactive learning and teaching resource:

New concepts in biology
Although the concept of host-microbe interactions and its consequences for the functions of a living organism have been researched for about two decades, the new findings have so far been insufficiently taught in life science education. Biology lessons and studies are partly based on concepts that are outdated or need to be expanded according to the current state of science. Many scientists therefore think that the way biological knowledge is taught must change fundamentally in the future. This is where the CRC 1182 comes in with its new application and offers a comprehensive presentation of the metaorganism theory and its influence on central life processes in humans, animals and plants. Included are exemplary chapters on the co-evolution of host organisms and microorganisms, their community dynamics and the relationships between microorganisms and the immune system. “With the constant deepening and networking of knowledge in the science system, there is a growing demand for new strategies and formats of knowledge transfer,” says Professor Thomas Bosch, spokesperson of the CRC 1182. “Our Collaborative Research Center is breaking new ground in this regard, allowing the general public and especially students and pupils to participate in our current interdisciplinary research at various levels. The most recent and unique example of this is the new learning application Meet the Metaorganism,” Bosch continues.

Science visualisation and digital teaching in schools and universities
The central aspect of the new format is the careful visualisation of scientific content, which was developed in close exchange with researchers from the CRC 1182. “The representations of our Meet the Metaorganism app have the special potential to reduce complexity, make abstract connections and phenomena visible and convey the core messages of metaorganism research in a pointed and appealing way,” emphasises Tom Duscher, co-owner of the SciCom Lab and Professor of Interactive Media at the Muthesius University of Fine Arts and Design Kiel. “To achieve this, we have researchers working directly with the design team to create an optimal synergy of visual design and scientific accuracy,” continues Duscher, who heads one of the outreach projects in the CRC 1182. In addition to the support from the Collaborative Research Center, extensive funds from the programme “Strengthening the Digitisation of Teaching” of the state of Schleswig-Holstein have also flowed into the project, which Professor Ilka Parchmann from the IPN and Professor Hinrich Schulenburg, Vice-Speaker of the SFB 1182, jointly obtained.

All in all, an application has been created that corresponds to the size of a textbook, but makes learning and understanding much easier due to the high degree of visualisation. In addition, the digital format is dynamic, so the learning application can be updated with new research results to keep pace with the dynamics of the research field. As a web-based resource, it is freely available at any time and, in addition to use in biology studies, also allows access for the interested public. Furthermore, Meet the Metaorganism is also planned to be used in the framework of the EU Horizon 2020 project SymbNET and in other places outside Germany in the promotion of young scientists. The consortium, in which the CRC 1182 is involved, networks Symbiosis researchers at various European locations. “In future, we want to expand the target group beyond students and also adapt the app for use in schools. Among other things, a multilingual version is in preparation for this. Overall, we are pursuing the goal of making the metaorganism concept better known and integrating it into the education of future life scientists as part of digital teaching,” says Schulenburg. Continuous collaboration with the Science Communication Lab is also planned in the upcoming third funding phase SFB 1182, in which the metaorganism researchers and experts in science visualisation want to further develop their outreach and teaching media.

Prof. Thomas Bosch
Spokesperson CRC 1182 „Origin and Function of Metaorganisms“, Kiel University:
Phone: +49 (0) 431-880-4170

Prof. Tom Duscher
Science Communication Lab
Phone: +49 (0) 431 5301-1140

More information:
Learning-App „Meet the Metaorganism“:

Video-Teaser „Meet the Metaorganism“:

Science Communication Lab, Kiel:

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