• Julia Zabinska

Microscopes and Metamorphosis: Exploring BIO-191’s Lab Transition to Remote Learning

BIO-191 students and professors hard at work on Zoom! Photo courtesy of Professor Katerina Ragkousi.

From performing PCR using one’s own cheek cells to analyzing corn cob genetics, the lab section of BIO-191 is certainly no joke. Each pre-lab assignment requires attention to course themes and getting accustomed with the instruments and procedures that students would be expected to know. Last semester during the lab sessions themselves, students quickly learned the life cycles of yeast from the posters on the blackboard and looked forward to Professor Goutte’s lively lab lectures. Having experienced BIO-191’s lab section myself in the fall, I couldn’t help but wonder: How did this lab-intensive and interactive course change as a result of this semester’s remote learning?

According to Julie Emerson (lab coordinator and course instructor) the answer is, quite frankly, not much. Having already done most of the “wet lab” experiments prior to spring break, Professor Emerson shared that students successfully performed all but one lab throughout the remote learning period. This experiment normally would have required students to perform a phototaxis experiment with the unicellular green algae Chlamydomonas using a compound light microscope. Allowing students to learn how to transfer species over to a microscope slide and to adjust the microscope’s foci to get a clear resolution of the algae, this specific experiment’s purpose was to increase student confidence in using laboratory tools, which proved to be difficult to adapt to an online setting.

Difficult, but not impossible. Professor Emerson writes, “Many parts of biology labs, such as asking questions, formulating hypotheses and analyzing data, lend themselves well to remote learning, and bioinformatics approaches allow students to use online databases to test their hypotheses directly,” emphasizing the value of turning to technological resources. For this lab in particular, Professor Emerson created a two-part prelab video familiarizing students with the microscope, and the lab itself then required students to explore BioNetwork’s Virtual Microscope to apply the prelab’s lessons. The final portion of the lab asked students to choose their favorite microscopic images and submit them to their lab professors with a short description. The instructors then compiled all of the images into one file and shared them with the entire class. Rather than watching Chlamydomonas transition from its non-motile form to its swimming form, students investigated the diverse and multifaceted uses of the compound light microscope and its broader utility in the field of biology.

Perhaps the most pressing question that students had when transitioning to remote learning was how can they possibly receive the in-person guidance that a lab instructor provides during the three-hour lab session if the lab must be completed on a computer screen at home? To address these concerns, the BIO-191 course instructors tuned into Zoom for one hour of each lab period, creating a “lab office hour” to compensate for the lack of in-person guidance. To additionally simulate a normal lab section, the BIO-101 lab has adopted 20-30 minute “chalk talks,” or short discussions aimed at overviewing lab procedures. Many students have found the recorded pre-lab videos to be incredibly helpful with the online format, which allows them to re-watch the videos on their own time to clarify concepts. Professor Emerson believes that the BIO-191 course will continue to post the recorded pre-labs on Moodle as the course evolves in the fall and spring of the next academic year.

Going forward, the lab instructors for this course greatly appreciate student feedback to shape the way remote learning will be carried out in the future. The most popular comment students had on a Google survey sent out to the BIO-191 class was how much longer every aspect of the course seems to be taking without social interaction. The professors recognize this difficulty and will certainly discuss how to change the lengths and expectations of assignments to fit remote learning criteria should this period continue. Students have also expressed some frustration with certain computer programs required for the lab that aren’t compatible with Mac computers. To address this, lab instructors tried to pair students up so that every “group” had at least one student with a PC in order to be able to access the program and use the “Share screen” function on Zoom to work with their peers.

Remote learning has tested Amherst students, professors, and administrators alike. For Professor Emerson, the greatest loss, “...the energy I [she] get[s] from the students,” has challenged her and the way this course is taught in many ways. However, this period has also been one of discovery and of adjustment as she and the BIO-191 lab instructors uncover what works in this lab section, what students want more of, and what they would like to see change.


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