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COIL Pedagogy: Giving Biotechnology Students an International Experience at Home

Opportunities for students to go abroad remained scarce as the pandemic impacted yet another school year. However, some instructors in the Biotechnology Program have created opportunities for students to interact with their peers abroad through implementing Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) pedagogy in the classroom. Dr. Stefanie Chen and Dr. Melissa Srougi both worked with colleagues at Nagoya University in Japan to modify their existing courses so their students could learn alongside each other. Though the content of the courses remained mostly the same, their students developed cross-cultural communication skills as they moved through the synchronous portion of the class.

“COIL is a pedagogy for virtual exchange and cultural competency that was developed by SUNY more than fifteen years ago,” said Jonathan Brewster, the director of the NC Japan Center. Mr. Brewster worked with Dr. Srougi and Dr. Chen to connect them with colleagues at Nagoya University and was instrumental in helping NC State begin introducing COIL in classrooms. Initially set up by the Office of Global Engagement (OGE) as a way for students to connect internationally during the temporary suspension of study abroad programs at NC State, it’s now much more than that. “COIL is integrated into the class experience,” he said, and it exposes students who may have otherwise been uninterested in or unaware of international engagement opportunities. Many NC State students may not have the time in their schedules or the financial resources to actually travel or study abroad. “We realized that COIL at NC State should be more than a ‘during-the-pandemic’ measure,” Mr. Brewster said. “This is  another way for OGE to expand our initiative for ‘global learning for all.’ We want to open as many avenues as possible for students to engage globally.”

And many faculty members appreciate OGE’s support in facilitating these programs. “The professors I work with want this experience for their students,” Mr. Brewster said. “That’s really the driving force.” That’s certainly true for Dr. Srougi and Dr. Chen, who wanted to allow their students to gain a more global perspective of science. Dr. Chen saw an announcement in a newsletter in the fall semester and decided to reach out to Mr. Brewster about adding COIL to one of her classes. “I was really interested in letting my students work with peers from other countries and think about how to communicate across cultural and linguistic barriers,” she said. Dr. Srougi is a first generation immigrant to the US, and her mother was an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher while she was growing up. Those experiences, as well as a study abroad experience she had in England during her undergraduate career, showed her how important and enriching cross cultural engagement can be. “I wanted to show my students how many types of people can be scientists,” she said, “and the COIL program was the perfect way to expose my students to the diversity of scientists.” 

“I wanted to show my students how many types of people can be scientists, and the COIL program was the perfect way to expose my students to the diversity of scientists.”

Dr. Srougi

Since COIL programming at NC State was launched in the spring of 2021, OGE has been recruiting instructors to implement it in their own classes. When instructors express interest in the program, Mr. Brewster and others at OGE reach out to their contacts at universities in other countries, primarily in Japan, England, and the Czech Republic. Faculty are matched with colleagues based on the similarity of their pre-existing classes, which helps minimize the number of adjustments that need to be made. From there, they meet with their new coworkers to modify their syllabi to line up for at least a few units, so that their students can work together for class assignments. While it can be challenging for faculty to fit their syllabi to match those of their international colleagues, both Dr. Srougi and Dr. Chen said that the experience was rewarding.

Dr. Srougi implemented COIL in BIT 100: Current Topics in Biotechnology during the fall 2021 semester. The American and Japanese semesters don’t exactly align, so she wasn’t matched with her co-teachers, Dr. Joyce Cartagena and Dr. Jasmina Damnjanovic, until after the start of classes for NC State. Because her students were already more than a month into their course before the plans for COIL were complete, it took clear communication and coordination from both NCSU and Nagoya to synergize their courses. Dr. Srougi’s syllabus remained mostly the same, but her students worked collaboratively on a final capstone project with students from Nagoya University. The whole class only met synchronously with the Nagoya cohort a few times prior to their final projects, but the students from NC State continued to meet with their international counterparts independently outside of class. Each group chose an emerging biotechnology topic to research and filmed a presentation explaining the science behind it, its applications, and any ethical or regulatory concerns. 

The two classes met synchronously one final time to watch the pre-recorded videos from each group followed afterwards with questions and in-depth discussion. Several groups found surprising differences in the regulation of different biotechnologies between the two countries. For example: “One group presented about a genetically engineered tomato that is sold in Japan but not in the US,” Dr. Srougi said. They explained that fruits and vegetables are more expensive in Japan, which may have contributed to the difference in regulation. Beyond being an interesting fact, their research also revealed more about life in Japan to Dr. Srougi’s students, meaning they gained both scientific and cultural knowledge.

In the spring, Dr. Chen introduced COIL into her BIT 402/502 Networking and Professional Development class. Typically, instructors are matched with colleagues who already teach very similar classes, but there was no counterpart for Dr. Chen’s class at Nagoya University. However, they were intrigued by Dr. Chen’s course and created their own version of it. The course at Nagoya University was led by Dr. Jasmina Damnjanovic, who worked with Dr. Chen to develop a plan that would work for both groups. Though the planning stages started before the beginning of the semester, students had already signed up for the class here at NC State, meaning that they couldn’t adjust the official meeting time for the synchronous classes. Dr. Chen scheduled the interactive COIL sessions for 8PM, instead of the usual class time of 3PM, and made them optional but highly encouraged. If students were unable to attend, they could complete an alternative assignment, but luckily, “we haven’t had many people miss the synchronous sessions, and most of the students have been really excited about them,” she said. 

These sessions were designed to encourage interaction and collaboration, so Dr. Chen and Dr. Damnjanovic started with an introductory Zoom to allow the students to meet and get to know each other. Before the session, there was also aPadlet for everyone to get to know each other asynchronously. After that, they met online for a peer interview session, which was followed by a mock interview session featuring biotechnology professionals from both countries. “That was a huge coordination effort,” she said, “I was really stressed about it, but it went really well.” Folding these opportunities for international interaction and collaboration into activities that were already planned for the class allowed students to gain professional skills and see how those might translate into different cultural contexts. For example, both Dr. Chen and Dr. Damnjanovic recorded videos for each other’s classes, explaining certain aspects of job hunting in their respective countries. While this is interesting in any context, it is especially helpful in science courses, because of its international history. Several large biotech companies, including BASF and FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies, currently operate in both North Carolina and Japan, providing diverse job opportunities.

Each semester, OGE conducts research to determine student outcomes in COIL courses. Other institutions that have hosted COIL programs for a long time, such as East Carolina University, have found that participants demonstrated a higher level of cultural competency and were more likely to study abroad in the future. Here at NC State, faculty have noticed higher rates of participation during course instruction and in assignments. The excitement generated by this international collaboration translates into more enthusiasm for course content. Though the COIL programming doesn’t change the actual content of the courses very much, students have still largely been thrown into this collaboration unexpectedly, which produces a very “intense” experience, said Mr. Brewster. “They get a lot of support from their professors, but it can still be a lot to handle,” he said. “We’re hoping that intensity sparks something.” Though COIL was initially thought of as a temporary option for virtual engagement, it’s become clear that it will continue to be helpful to students as virtual classes end.

“Early on, there was a question of whether we’d need COIL once it became possible for students to go abroad again,” Mr. Brewster said. “And we do. We do really need these multiple avenues for global interaction for our students.” There are obvious differences between COIL courses and study abroad programs, but one of the main ones is that, generally speaking, they are aimed at different sets of students. Students who seek out opportunities to travel to and study in other countries are usually already interested in global engagement, but this initial interest isn’t a requirement for COIL programs. Some students may be happily surprised to learn about their new project, but many may be initially indifferent. “It’s increasingly important for students to be prepared for a more ‘global’ world than ever before,” he said, and COIL offers a way for everyone to develop the skills they’ll need. OGE is working on ramping up this programming, and Mr. Brewster hopes to see more and more courses incorporating it into their curricula in the future. 

“It’s increasingly important for students to be prepared for a more ‘global’ world than ever before”

Mr. Brewster

Dr. Chen and Dr. Srougi, at least, are planning to continue working with the NC Japan Center and OGE, and hoping to offer their COIL-enhanced courses again. “We’re just now wrapping up this course,” Dr. Chen said, “so I haven’t asked anyone yet, but I would love to teach the class this way again.” Dr. Srougi agrees, and said, “it’s invaluable and I would love to keep doing it.” 

Dr. Sjogren and Dr. Goller just started teaching BIT 295 Biotechnology & Sustainability this semester, but they’re already looking for ways to collaborate with their international colleagues in future semesters. “I’ve been trying to connect globally for several years now,” Dr. Goller said, and so he designed BIT 295 with that goal in mind. He has already connected with faculty from Ghana, the University of Surrey, and ITESM Campus Querétaro and Campus Monterrey in México, and he hopes to continue working with them next year. Beyond in-class interaction, he is excited about spreading the “Science Sprints” events – public engagement opportunities associated with the courses. Several other campuses in the US have started their own Science Sprints events, and he’s thrilled to be able to expand them globally through virtual connections and COIL. As for the course activities and projects, Dr. Goller hopes that they will “encourage students to connect with and learn from peers from different backgrounds.”

Though NC State didn’t begin incorporating the COIL pedagogy into classes until recently, more and more instructors are embracing it in their classrooms. Its unique way of helping students to build technical and cultural skills means that BIT instructors can still prioritize the content of their courses while also creating ways for students to learn about their international peers. While it was initially used to foster global engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic, as COIL programming expands into more disciplines and classes, OGE hopes that it will expose more students to the possibilities of international collaboration. 

Figure: Professional Development students share biotech industry information via Padlet.