How to Rethink Science Lab Classes

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The rapid transition from college classrooms to online classes in the wake of COVID-19 has given faculty members little to no time for planning and preparation. Challenging pedagogical issues must still be addressed, particularly regarding the best way to educate undergraduates in online science laboratory courses. Science labs at the undergraduate level can be taught effectively online, however, with some modifications — and some of these modifications may be valuable even after academic life returns to normal.

Touro College, with two decades of experience in online education, routinely provides rigorous training to faculty who teach our asynchronous online courses. During this current transition, we have used that expertise to help faculty effectively transition to synchronous online teaching by providing videos, Zoom sessions and tutorials with guidelines for best practice and step-by-step skills. Our shift to online teaching was extremely smooth, and the feedback from students and faculty has been overwhelmingly positive. We would like to share some of the lessons that we have learned about teaching online science laboratory sections.

Online sessions must offer active learning experiences, which can include frequent opportunities for students to answer questions and defend answers, debate their peers, and tackle real problems. Since the COVID-19 epidemic is on the minds of all students, our science classes often begin by giving them a debriefing of the current information published in top peer-reviewed journals that appear daily.

The genetics-immunology lab that one of us, John Loike, teaches at Touro’s Lander College for Women provides an example of an online science laboratory. This semester’s course began with normal classroom lab instruction, teaching students how to maintain animal cells in the laboratory. In their lab sections, students learned how to maintain mouse microglial cells, as these brain immune cells play a critical role in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The ability to maintain such cells in the laboratory gives students a method to examine their distinct characteristics under normal conditions or when treated with certain types of drugs. Specifically, as part of the lab, students were taught how to assess the time required for these cells to divide, how to assess the toxicity of a drug or treatment on these cells and how to assess what proteins these cells express under normal conditions or when given a drug. Finally, students learned how to measure a critical immunological function (phagocytosis) that these cells use to clear the cellular “garbage” from dying neurons.

Based on our discussion of this lab and other science labs, we have identified five objectives for online labs that are critical to any science laboratory experience and lend themselves well to online teaching. In fact, online education offers an opportunity to teach students frequently overlooked skills that are important for every scientific discipline.

Objective 1: Learn how to propose new scientific experiments. Every scientist needs to know how to design a research proposal that builds on existing knowledge to address critical questions. Students in an online laboratory class can be divided into groups of two so that they can use their actual lab experience and understanding of the techniques to propose new experiments. By working in pairs, each student’s voice is heard, and ideas can be explored and discussed.

For example, many clinical studies have shown that focused ultrasound can boost the immune system when used in cancer patients. In our new online classes, two students proposed experiments to understand what effects ultrasound would have on the brain microglial cell functions. If ultrasound boosts the immune system, it may also increase the capacity of these cells to serve as sanitation engineers — that is, to clear harmful cellular waste. Another set of students proposed experiments to examine the effects of the caffeine found in coffee on microglia based on the published observations that this drug may also affect the immune system and help delay onset or reduce severity of Alzheimer’s disease.

Objective 2: Learn how to review the literature and critically read peer-reviewed journals. Reading journals or narrative science is mandatory for all scientists to learn about new discoveries and to better understand new insights in any area of science. In the online lab, we teach students how to read peer-reviewed journal papers to glean ideas about what research has been done regarding their proposed experiments.

Specifically, we have students read selected papers related to their proposed experiments and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of those papers. Since many students do not have a comprehensive background on their particular project, students are taught how to use PubMed, a comprehensive site that searches more than 30 million biomedical citations. PubMed contains many filters to select what papers the students need to read. For example, students can use the filters to select only current “review” papers about a topic to provide a general background of a selected topic.

Students can also review papers that their professor has published and then ask questions. In this way, they can gain deeper insight into the processes of both scientific inquiry and academic publication.

Objective 3: Learn how to design complex research experiments. Since students at this level do not have a great deal of experience in experimental design, the National Institutes of Health’s RePORTER database of grants is an important tool that few undergraduates use to expand their scientific knowledge. This site allows students to retrieve the abstracts of NIH-funded scientists about their NIH-approved grants. Many of these abstracts present the scientist’s view of what questions need to be addressed on a particular topic and what type of experiments can be done to address those questions. In this manner, students can compare their ideas with scientists who are actually proposing experiments. This pedagogical design stimulates and enhances the creative spirit to help them design new experiments.

Objective 4: Learn how to analyze experimental data. Analyzing experimental data requires distinct skills that are not normally taught in a laboratory. Some students do take statistical analysis, an important course for any scientist. In an online laboratory section, students have more time to discuss basic information about data analysis, such as: How many experiments are needed to achieve statistical analysis? How can you present the data in the most accurate and transparent manner? Under what conditions are a bar graph or line plot appropriate to present their data?

Finally, students are taught how to write a figure or table legend, something rarely taught in any statistics course. The information presented in the legends is vital for the readers to understand how the specific experiments were carried out. Professors can also share actual data generated in their laboratories for students to analyze and review as practice.

Objective 5: Learn by teaching others. Learning by teaching has been proven to result in better understanding and retention. Students are asked to teach each other in online sessions. This may involve traditional pedagogic interactions, such as explaining basic research concepts or presenting research findings that support a hypothesis.

Faculty members can also develop new and creative approaches to teaching. For example, John created a game of genetics Jeopardy, modeled on the popular television game show, which students can play with their professor or other students online. Every other week, a student is assigned to create their own genetics Jeopardy for their classmates. Kahoot! or other popular online sites can be used by students to create a game and engage each other.

While offering virtual labs may be challenging, we have realized that the move to online education actually offers faculty members an unusual opportunity to transform how many students think about their labs. Faculty members can use the online lab experience to explore research topics and scientific analysis in a way that is often not adequately pursued in face-to-face scientific labs. In the long run, successfully adopting innovative ways to facilitate interactive learning will be invaluable for science education.

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