Instructor Narratives

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Moving an Infectious Diseases Lab Online

I teach Bio Sci 2100: Infectious Diseases.  (Yes, the irony of that course being offered this semester isn't lost.)  Beyond the sudden flood of new course materials provided by current events, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused challenges since this class includes a lab.


Fortunately, this wasn't the first online lab course I've developed.  I also teach Bio Sci 1200: General Botany online, and that prior experience gave me some tools and techniques as I made this transition:


Keep learning objectives at the forefront.  What did I REALLY want my students to learn through the lab?  Was my objective that students be able to use the microscope?  Or was my objectives for students to recognize and label the specimen they are viewing?  For my infectious diseases class, one learning objective is that students can classify a protozoan into its specific type based on movement.  In lab, we use microscopes to see this movement, but the microscopes are the tool, not the objective.  For online, YouTube videos served as a low-tech and free replacement.


What if the tool IS the objective?  For my class, I don’t focus on the tools, but what if my objective was for my students to know how to use a microscope?  Online labs can’t replicate tool usage entirely online, but we can simulate it.  There are multiple simulations and videos available on how to use scientific tools.  If that won't do, there are services where students can rent or buy lab equipment for use at home.  "Rent or buy" means money, so go with those options only when absolutely necessary.  


Making a kit to send home. Safety is a concern in my labs.  We don't deal with pathogens, and I limit the exposure to hazardous solutions even in my face-to-face lab.  For example, when studying antibodies and the immune system, we do a blood typing lab.  But we don't use REAL blood.  We use simulated blood.  


That caution is paying off now!  I can safely send some of those materials home with my students so they can do the lab off-campus.  Companies like Carolina Biological SupplyWard's Science, and Edvotek provide classroom lab kits for science labs, many of which have safe components.  As I started to see COVID-19 spreading in China this February, I started ordering extra supplies, so each student could have their own kit.  I caught most of the students before they left campus.  For the rest, I am mailing their kits to their new address.


Keeping the work collaborative!  I want to give my students the opportunity to discuss their labs with classmates and work cooperatively.  In the blood-typing lab described above, students were each given a different “blood” sample.  After they conduct the blood-typing test, they'll be asked to share their results with their lab team and, as a group, decide which samples could be donors for a certain patient.


Another way I am keeping it collaborative is by having them meet with me during their lab times via Zoom.  I am going to demonstrate how to do the lab, then send them to break-out rooms and have them do the lab in their breakout rooms.  They can share and discuss their results and make any conclusions as a team before coming make to the main Zoom room and discussing the process and outcome.  


Here’s a fun one: For the “How pathogens spread” lab activity, only one person has received an unmarked “infected” sample in their kit.  The students will be divided into breakout rooms of two to mimic the exchange of samples, thus the infected sample will transmit the pathogen to their partner.  We’ll repeat that 2 more times, each round with a different partner.  The students will then all test their samples.  Once we know who the “index” cas was, we can work out who they were paired with and who else is now also infected.  What type of transmission does this mimic?  Not the one caused by SARS-CoV-2! 


Document the process.  Not all of the lab components will be synchronous—where everyone is in the same virtual space at the same time.  Some will be done independently as asynchronous labs.  To insure that everyone is engaged for asynchronous lab components, students will video themselves doing the lab or submit a picture of the product.  Just to be extra sure, I am going to ask them to include their Student ID in the picture, so I can see that they are doing it themselves and not just posting another student's work.  


Get creative.  Of course there are barriers, and sometimes I get so caught up in the “But now I can’t…” that I don’t see the possibilities!  I’ve had to step away from the negatives and use this chance to be creative.  One helpful resource I’ve found are the people in my life, like a colleagues, Instructional Designers, family, or even social media.  They often know of a resource or can help me brainstorm a solution that will work online.  For this class, I used my TA, my husband, students, and my teenage kids as sounding boards.  They all made contributions or gave feedback on my ideas. 


Learn from Disney's Frozen and be prepared to... Let it Go! In this time of urgency, there has had to be one thing I’ve had to let go—running a gel.  It’s a fun lab—students feel like they’re in CSI!  But it requires equipment, and being able to run a gel isn’t one of my learning objectives (see item 1).  So… I’m letting that go.  I am going to do a “cooking show” version of running a gel, where on Zoom I demonstrate how to prepare and load a gel and then, WALLAH!  I’ll pull out a fully baked gel for them to analyze as they explore the question, “Did Dr. Jacobs knowingly inject his wife with HIV from one of his patients?”

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