The case Blind Spot by Sam Donovan at the University of Pittsburgh sets the stage for students who will pursue scientific understanding by working collaboratively on answering a question of their own choice using the Plasmodium Problem Space.  

Blind Spot by Sam Donovan, University of Pittsburgh

Stacey had thought the opportunity to study wild chimpanzees in Cameroon would be a perfect summer research project. Despite having to work through a maze of official paperwork, satisfy her parents’ anxieties about traveling alone, and tolerate the side effect of Mefloquine, she remained enthusiastic.

After sitting in the blind for two hours with three more to go, Stacey realized it wasn’t exactly a tropical vacation. It was a pretty small space, but she had everything she needed – her spotting scope, research notebook, camera, compass, map, GPS, satellite phone, water bottle, and snacks. She stifled an impulse to stretch again.

This was her first day at the new site observing Pt elioti. From what she could see, their behavior pattern of sleeping and stretching was similar to what she had seen in Pt troglodytes during her orientation at the initial site. The young chimps were sometimes active during these middle of the day observations, but for the adults, getting up to poop was about the most they moved around.

About a dozen mosquitoes took turns flying around her head and then trying to bite any exposed area. Clearing all of them out of the blind proved impossible, especially since the long drive over the mountains yesterday had left her a bit stiff. She was protected by her meds, so swatting them when they came too close seemed sufficient.

A movement in the trees caught her eye. She quickly zoomed her spotting scope in on the action. Abe, a teenage male, was repositioning himself. She watched him for a while and then chuckled. Pestered by mosquitoes, Abe regularly shooed them away from his ears and face.

She stretched and shifted her position trying to get comfortable on the metal stool. The similarities between her situation and the chimp’s was not lost on her. “I wonder if he should be taking Mefloquine too?” Stacey asked no one in particular.

The case can be used to encourage students to share what they know and need to know as well as to develop their own questions about humans, chimpanzees, mosquitoes, and malaria. Students will then gain access to the Plasmodium Problem Space that provides resources (such as data sets, tools, and links to diverse materials for studying malaria biology) to explore these questions.

You can see collaborative work by a group of UT-Knoxville graduate students using the tools and resources featured in the problem space in Crisis at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (

Investigative case-based learning incorporates problem posing, problem solving, and peer persuasion (Peterson and Jungck, 1988, Waterman and Stanley, 2004) by providing students with the opportunity to pursue a more realistic set of science engagements.  

  • -problem posing, teaching them to ask questions and develop research strategies (elicits prior knowledge and misconceptions)
  • -problem solving – having a data/resource rich context for doing the work
  • -peer review & persuasion – placing an emphasis on describing the evidence base for claims.

Students investigate scientific questions that they find relevant as well as:

  • -locate and manage information;
  • -connect their research question to broad/applied contexts;
  • -develop reasonable answers to their questions;
  • -communicate their scientific reasoning to their peers;
  • -provide support for their conclusions, and;
  • -work on decision making abilities.

Students will also consider what kinds of scientific products result from this problem solving. They may be asked to produce a research proposal, pamphlet, report, or graph.


Student responses to Blind Spot follow:

1. What is the case about?

Field work, chimpanzees, malaria, nature of science, primate biology, mosquitoes, primate behavior, preventative malarial treatments such as Mefloquine, endangered species, biogeography, world health, etc.

2. Know/ Need to Know Chart

3. What question will your group investigate?

Examples:  Where does malaria come from? Can chimpanzees get malaria?  How can scientists learn how to better prevent malaria in humans by studying other primates?

4. List specific resources you can use to answer your questions:

-CDC Malaria Page

-Encyclopedia of Life Chimpanzee page

-Malaria Maps Project

5. Access the Plasmodium Problem Space



Plasmodium Problem Space


A problem space is a collection of resources that can be used to support student research. For example, a group of students could:

  • -Look at the Plasmodium sequence data summary and site map from the Liu et al. (2011) study and generate a list of observations and questions.
  • -Select the Plasmodium sequences from 2 collection sites and run a multiple sequence alignment to get a sense of how similar/different the parasites are from each other. Creating a distance tree will help to determine if the sites have independent or mixed Plasmodium populations.
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2 Responses to Using Investigative Cases to Explore the Plasmodium Problem Space

  1. Profile photo of Sam Donovan Sam Donovan says:

    I’m very excited that this resource is being featured on Science Case Network. The Plasmodium Problem Space is a new project and very much under development. I’d be interested in any feedback you would like to share, I’d be happy to answer questions, or share more about our goals if that would be useful.

  2. Profile photo of Web Editor Web Editor says:

    Using a case to introduce your Plasmodium Problem Space really makes sense. Student responses to the Know/Need to Know Chart generated great starting questions to explore. Starting with a case also created an opportunity for students who have studied malaria, primates, or bioinformatics to share what they know with those who had not. I especially loved the featured group work Crisis at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve linked in your case introduction. Their product – a phylogenetic tree – helped answer their question about diversity within the Plasmodium sp. The group identified new questions to explore as well.

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