This blog post is authored by Dr. Melissa Rowland-Goldsmith, Associate Professor  of Biological Sciences and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Co-Director of the Institute for Excellence in Teaching & Learning

On March 11, 2020, I had to quickly pivot the direction of my research based molecular biology lab class so that the students would still have a meaningful lab experience. Dr. Marco Bisoffi teaches the lecture part of this class while I teach the lab portion. Together, Marco and I came up with novel ways to keep students engaged and create a different novel research-based lab experience based on SARS-CoV-2 for the remaining part of the spring 2020 semester. The good news was that the students had already practiced the techniques that the original semester-long project was based upon. Thus, it was less of a “blow” for me to not have the students continue or complete the original research project. But, as I started to plan this same class for spring 2021, I knew I had to give the students the opportunity to get the same hands-on experience regarding learning and doing the modern techniques that they would use in their future careers. Thus, after multiple discussions with Dr. Bisoffi and Ashley Whelpley who is the Chapman Instructional Lab Manager, we knew that we wanted the students to have the option to do this class in-person.  Thus, I sent a request to allow me to teach this as a HyFlex course. Once I was granted this request it was time to plan this course.

To be successful in teaching such a course, I spent a tremendous amount of time planning this course with both Dr. Bisoffi and Ashley Whelpley. It is important to note what a collaborative effort this was. In addition, since we needed to plan for 25% room occupancy, it was a necessity to teach this class simultaneously in two lab rooms plus on Zoom for those that could not return to campus. I needed someone to help me teach in the other lab room. I was fortunate to be assisted by a former student, Alex Graden. We (Dr. Bisoffi, Ashley and I) had several Zoom meetings, both at the end of the fall semester as well as during interterm, to discuss all the logistics involved in planning and executing this lab class. In the end, we decided to have seven in-person labs integrated throughout the semester. The other labs were planned to be fully online. I sent out a survey to find out how many students planned to return to campus for these in-person labs. I was thrilled to learn that 17 out of 25 were returning to the campus. It was quite important for me to make sure that the 8 students taking this class via Zoom felt like they were doing every step of the lab and that their voices counted.

The semester started with the students choosing a partner based on the group they were assigned. I divided the class into three groups: early group: students working in the in-person lab during the first half of class; late group: students working in the in-person lab during the last half of class: Zoom group- this group works alongside with the early group and follows a specific student who we asked to serve as the “MC.” This student, Edena Khoshaba, has lots of experience conducting molecular biology research and is currently a Goldwater Scholar. Then, we spent the next few labs doing synchronous Zoom sessions where students worked with their partner to identify a particular topic (gene) they wanted to study for the project. Each pair of students did extensive research and presented a rationale for the gene they wanted to study. It was quite important that the Zoom students also chose the gene that they want to study for the semester-long project. To maximize our time in the lab, I created a pre-class video in which I gave students details on the background of the project as well as technical issues of how to perform the experiment. I added additional short YouTube videos showcasing some of the instruments the students would be using.  Each student was required to complete a short Canvas quiz based on the video. (These videos and accompanying quizzes, presented prior to each in-class lab, are open book and I allow students to take the quiz a maximum of two times. My goal is for the students to be well prepared for the actual wet labs).

We then had the students spend three different in-person labs practicing the techniques they would use for the “real” experiment. This lab class is taught in a Flexcam classroom. Alex and I, once again, planned ahead by setting the classroom cameras to focus on Edena’s workspace. Furthermore, we also had a cell phone mounted to a Tripod join the Zoom meeting, so we had two different views of the workstation. We made sure to use the newest Zoom meeting functions by “spotlighting” both Zoom room participants. In addition, we asked for Zoom students help in making sure we provided the best camera angles to provide the best views possible.

Then the real fun began! All 25 students promptly joined the Zoom meeting at the start of the class. After a few general announcements, we had the late in-person group choose breakout rooms to work with their partner on a separate assignment. The early group and Zoom students worked on the project.  Our “MC,” Edena Khoshaba, has done a great job thus far, working with the Zoom students. Also, I constantly reach out to the Zoom students and ask how they are doing. At the end of each lab class, we have data to analyze. I bring in the Zoom students and ask them to unmute and discuss the data together. They helped Edena do the experiment, so they are fully invested in the project. Of course, just like I would have done in past semesters, Alex and I are also working with the in-person students and constantly helping them with their experiments. Once the early group finishes the experiment, they do an intense cleaning of their workspace and we then bring in the late group. To make sure that the new students do not work at the same desk, I placed a piece of tape, so the new students are sure to choose a different desk.  At that point, the early group and Zoom students stay on Zoom and join breakout groups to work on their other assignment.

For the “real” experiment, starting after spring break, the in-person partners will each complete half the project and they will then combine their results to answer their research questions. My lab assistant, Alex, will perform all the lab experiments for the Zoom students when we do those future labs. The cameras will focus on Alex so the Zoom students can directly interact with him and ask questions. I will then be running from lab to lab making sure the in-person students get all questions answered. At the end of the semester, all students will have data to analyze that is based on their rationale project. One additional personal benefit for me teaching this class is that I obtain nearly 10,000 steps per lab! Though I am quite exhausted by the end of each lab, I am thrilled to give my students this experience.

Shown below are a few quotes from students taking this lab class.

“The planning and coordination during the lab period is evident. The cameras are ready to go and stationed strategically to provide the best possible view for students who can’t physically make it to lab. The wet-lab is still a genuine learning experience, even though we are using video communication applications to attend class.” Dustin Willard, Biochemistry major who is taking the class fully online

“Being able to get back into the lab in Keck and hold a pipette after a year has been a bizarre feeling…Dr. RG pulled a lot of strings in order to provide us this amazing opportunity to get hands-on experience with foundational lab skills that we will need in our futures. It has been fun navigating the hybrid classroom by walking through the lab as remote learners watch me perform the experiments with cameras around me, set up by our awesome lab TA, Alex Graden. As we all adjust to this new experience, we have learned a great deal from each other in terms of adaptability and resilience to overcome the challenges brought on by virtual learning.”  Edena Khoshaba Biochemistry major who is taking the class in person; she is also serving as the “MC” for the Zoom students

“On week 5, it was the time to check the integrity of the separated tRNA via gel electrophoresis. However, when we all came together in the end of lab to visualize the gel, I saw a lane that displayed faint bands that were barely visible. I was hoping that isn’t the lane I loaded my sample (into), but I realized the lane is mine. Seeing that I am the only one whose bands were barely visible was demoralizing, but I thought to myself, “But hey, I am still in lab, and perhaps, there is a way I can rationalize my unexpected results.” The only thing I could think of at the time was to check the concentration of my total RNA sample again. I was glad that I was able to identify very likely factors that had caused an unusual result in my experiment. Had I not been in an in-person lab, I could have missed out on such critical thinking process to discuss and identify the potential causes to the results of the experiment. Also, I would have had to think about a myriad of things that could have gone wrong without being able to actually test them.” Brian Han, biochemistry major who is taking the class in person

This is my list of suggestions for those of us who will begin teaching a HyFlex class starting March 29:

  • Schedule a meeting ahead of time with a classroom technician (classroom technology support)
  • Survey your students to see how many are planning to return to the classroom and then come up with a room schedule based on COVID room capacity (list of classrooms and room types)
  • Create meaningful learning experiences for the Zoom students so they feel like they belong
  • Practice teaching in the classroom by having a colleague Zoom in while you have a few others in the room
  • Make sure you update your Zoom account so that you can use the newest features mentioned above (students choosing own breakout groups; multiple spotlights)
  • Keep ALL students engaged throughout the class session
  • Know that there will be technical issues but just “roll with the punches” and don’t stress out. If necessary, just click the red help button on the podium to get technical help
  • Be sure to check the chat on a regular basis to make sure the students online get all questions answered in a timely manner. To help monitor the chat, consider requesting a student technology expert

DecorativePhoto of Dr. Rowland-Goldsmith interacting with both students in the classroom and also on ZoomDecorative

Photo of Edena Khoshaba, “MC,” for the Zoom students working on the experiment and communicating with them