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How to Teach a Lab Class in the Age of Corona: BIT Program Adaptations

Though it seems a bit cliché to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected many areas of life, including, notably, education. When classes went online this past spring, the Biotechnology Program was thrown into relative chaos like everyone else. But now, they’re back with a plan.

One facet of the biotechnology classes that has been a fixture since 2016 is the use of LabArchives’ electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs). In the past, these notebooks have provided an easy way for students to submit and keep track of lab work. But they proved vital resources for finishing the spring semester successfully, as detailed in this article.

BIT 410/510 is the largest class taught in the program, so making the videos for this course was a priority.

According to Dr. Stefanie Chen, a teaching assistant professor in the program, having “years of data from previous students to mine” allowed the students to continue with the analysis part of their classes. Though they were unable to conduct experiments on their own, they could examine the results of those experiments and draw their own conclusions from them.

While that saved the classes in the spring, the Biotechnology Program has now been able to enhance that experience for what is now a fully-online fall semester. Across campus, the Chemistry Department had just completed a project making interactive virtual reality videos for their organic chemistry labs. Inspired by this, Dr. Chen decided to do a version of this for the biotechnology courses.

BIT 410/510 is the largest class taught in the program, so making the videos for this course was a priority; it serves as a gateway to the rest of the biotechnology courses offered. The videos made for the class were truly a team effort, spearheaded by Dr. Sengupta. Other members of the program helped by performing the experiments for the videos, which were shot facing them across the lab bench. Each video was filmed and edited by Dr. Sengupta. 

Because classes started out in person this semester, these videos were originally intended to supplement in-lab work. Normally, students would have their stamina tested weekly in a  five-hour-long lab period. This time around, the plan was to have groups of students come in for two hours at a time, once every three weeks, to learn lab skills that were deemed the most necessary. Splitting the students into groups allowed them to maintain social distancing in the lab space. All in all, students would have come in four times over the course of the semester to learn skills such as plasmid purification and DNA gel electrophoresis.

Unfortunately, as classes were once again sent online only two weeks into the semester, these skills sessions will not be continuing. The students were able to complete only one of these sessions in that time, and much of the time in those sessions was spent in figuring out logistics, so the impact of the videos on overall performance is yet to be determined.

Dr. Stefanie Chen wearing PPE and a head-mounted camera.
Dr. Stefanie Chen wearing PPE and a head-mounted camera.

After making the BIT 410/510 videos, Dr. Chen decided to strike out on her own and create some for her BIT 473/573 course, Protein Interactions. These videos were shot in first person, which was achieved by strapping an Akaso camera, similar to a GoPro, to Dr. Chen’s forehead (as seen above). The resulting products are high quality, impressively steady videos with a front-row seat to all the action. They also frequently pause to show details, such as the labels proclaiming the contents of each tube being used in the experiment. PlayPosit was added to these videos so that students could select different options as they move through the video, which made these already immersive videos even more compelling.

Moving forward, Dr. Chen says that the program plans to continue using the videos for future classes. Many students see low success rates with the experiments performed in the biotechnology labs, which they only get to try once, so she is hopeful that the videos will “cut down on the mistakes” and allow students to achieve more successful outcomes in the lab courses.