by Anna Megdell
Last winter, the students of Alison Davis Rabosky, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and assistant curator at the U-M Museum of Zoology (UMMZ), attended class from their living rooms, bedrooms, and makeshift offices. On their computer screens, they watched Davis Rabosky and Hayley Crowell, an EEB Ph.D. student and graduate student instructor, use network-enabled document cameras and dissecting scopes—a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end—to show a giant cane toad up close. “We’d deliberately picked a toad that had a tick attached,” Davis Rabosky explains. “We followed the students’ direction. They asked us to flip the toad over, just like if they’d been in the lab and could do it themselves. When they saw the tick, everyone went wild.”
As they figured out how to adapt the lab of their biodiversity course to a virtual setting when classes went remote because of Covid-19, Davis Rabosky and Crowell wanted to create moments of discovery for their students to experience the awe and sense of surprise that comes when working with the natural world. The class teaches students how to identify different species and discusses big picture themes of biodiversity. Pre-pandemic, labs relied heavily on hands-on experiences: visits to UMMZ, interactive labs where students could hold and examine specimens up-close, and field trips to local nature reserves and behind-the-scenes zoo tours.
Davis Rabosky had taught the course before, but she needed to redesign the lab section for it to make sense online. To do this, she held true to the values that had guided the original course: a sense of discovery and of connection, both to the specimens about which they were learning and to each other. Because visits to UMMZ and the lab weren’t possible, and because flat images of snakes or frogs in a slideshow didn’t capture the awesomeness of the animals, Davis Rabosky and Crowell set out to create a wholly new, dynamic class. “We told ourselves, ‘It might not be perfect, but we’ll do the best we can to make it as close as possible to a real experience for the students,’” says Crowell.
For Davis Rabosky, who won the 2021 Meritorious Teaching Award in Herpetology, a national award presented by the Herpetology Education Committee, this approach went beyond the course material. “We wanted students to know their professors were showing up for them,” she says. “When someone is learning, what’s meaningful is not only the knowledge itself, but how the learning made them feel.”
Davis Rabosky and Crowell wanted to simulate the energy and excitement of walking through a laboratory filled with specimens. They created a performance studio with scope cameras that streamed a live feed to students’ computers (which was recorded for those who preferred to study asynchronously). For three hours at a time, they’d intersperse specimens like the giant cane toad with students guiding the discovery, pairing each specimen with engaging activities to link the species with core concepts being explored in the class.
Vanessa Kiefer (B.S. ’21) took the class purely because of her passion for biology, enrolling despite already having met her graduation requirements. The virtual setting didn’t deter her. “No type of format change would have kept me from taking the class,” she says. “It ended up giving me a new confidence that we can adapt on the fly and showed me that things aren’t impossible when there’s an obstacle. It made me feel optimistic.”
Davis Rabosky and Crowell arranged for students to visit UMMZ virtually and created labs focused on building science communication skills. They also set up activities for students to analyze data collected by graduate students at LSA and researchers at other institutions. “One lab session was called the ‘Batrachian Barf Bowl,’ in which we remotely analyzed the prey items found within frog vomit,” Davis Rabosky explains. “This was less gross than it sounds. Frogs don’t chew, so their barf is actually quite pretty with gorgeous insects perfectly preserved.”
Presenting a three-hour, fully synchronous virtual laboratory—plus another three hours per week in lecture—can be exhausting, and certain aspects of the course material were difficult to translate online. Still, there was a feature unique to the remote format these students and professors loved: the chat function on Zoom. Students asked questions in the chat that Crowell answered while Davis Rabosky lectured. They were also able to share ideas and responses to the material with each other.
For Kiefer, the lively chat created a sense of connection. “We all really enjoyed the class because we were encouraged to engage and do more than just sit at our computer,” she says. “Opportunities to actively participate really affect morale. They make students feel like this is our class too.”
LSA is filled with lab courses that transitioned remotely during the pandemic, relying on creativity, fortitude, and a knack for experimentation. Here are two stories of how students and professors adapted to the remote world.
During the 2020-2021 academic year, Nicholas Cemalovic, an LSA junior studying chemistry, worked as a teaching assistant in introductory chemistry classes, leading discussion sections of larger lectures. As a student himself, Cemalovic was able to encourage and relate to his students as they navigated remote learning. “Students build their confidence in those lab sections,” he says. “You’re fully allowed to make mistakes, ask questions, and try again.”
Cemalovic says the main objective of the class was getting comfortable in the lab, especially while conducting experiments. When class went remote, the course pivoted to focus on data analysis. With the students at home, Cemalovic and other instructors would run experiments in the lab, collect data, and send measurements to their students. This allowed students to focus on discovering patterns in large swaths of data, which are more complicated and often contain inconsistencies. “They weren’t able to collect the data themselves, but it’s the data interpretation that’s most important,” Cemalovic says. “We always forget that.”
Nathaniel Szymczak, associate professor of chemistry, took a similar approach. He taught an upper-level chemistry course designed to allow students opportunities to explore advanced experimentation techniques. “It’s their time to move beyond formula-based experiments into owning an experiment, coming up with their own testable hypothesis, going into the lab, and figuring out what works,” he explains.
This proved difficult when his class was fully remote at first, then in a hybrid setting with a lower capacity of students allowed in the lab. “Luckily I have curated datasets from prior experiments that students could access,” Szymczak explains. “I tried to stress that even if their experiments didn’t go perfectly, they could still interpret data and analyze hypotheses.”
To encourage a sense of exploration and connection with the scientific process, Szymczak emphasized the skills that students can take out of the lab and into the workforce. “A huge aspect of the class is writing. Even if we can’t run an experiment how we’d like, we can instruct students how to write about it,” says Szymczak “They need to be able to communicate what they’re doing to the public. It’s one of the most important skills students can get before joining the workforce.”
For Szymczak, the demands of teaching experimental chemistry in a largely remote setting reminded him of something essential: “We’ve learned that we’ll do whatever we need to, no matter what.”
Years before the pandemic, Ramón Torres-Isea, director of the Advanced Physics Laboratory and lecturer in the Department of Physics, sensed a growing need to be able to conduct experiments remotely. He started to develop software programs that allowed someone outside the lab to conduct experiments using equipment in the lab, in real time. When the pandemic moved lab classes fully remote, Torres-Isea was prepared. “Throughout the years, I gradually worked to incorporate and acquire the equipment that gave labs more connectivity so I could program experiments from my computer to control them remotely,” he says. “It paid off big time.”
Torres-Isea, graduate student instructors, and trained undergraduate assistants worked in the lab as proxies for students in their homes. Although many of the experimental instruments could be controlled remotely, some could not, so over Zoom, the student would give the person in the lab directions: which part of the instrument they wanted to see more closely, which switch to flip, which dial to increase and by how much. The data outputted from the instrument would then go to either a commercial software program or a software program Torres-Isea created, where the student could analyze their findings.
Daphne Blumin (B.S. ’21) took two semesters of the advanced lab courses. For her, the experience felt like being in two places at once. “Being in the lab is so tactile,” she says. “Not being able to be hands-on, but still sort of being in the lab virtually was such a unique feeling.”
Torres-Isea and his colleagues also created videos that showed students how equipment worked and the process of various experiments. As Blumin says, science classes were uniquely prepared to adapt to remote learning. “It’s a scientist’s nature to experiment,” she says. “One of my favorite professors used to say that physics teaches you to look at a problem and admit to yourself that you don’t know what’s going on. From there, you can figure out how to move forward.”
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