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'Things don’t always go as planned:' Emory biology labs reinforce learning from uncertainty

Transitioning to remote learning brought challenges for every class, especially those with hands-on components. But leaving the labs didn’t stop the science, as seen through Emory’s undergraduate biology classes.

As Emory College’s labs shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of undergraduates in biology classes 120 (“Concepts in Biology”) and 142 (“Foundations of Modern Biology II”) scattered around the globe without completing the hands-on research required in the courses.

That didn’t stop the science.

For their final lab, students in Biology 120 are logging into SimBio to conduct epidemiological modeling, studying the variables that can affect contagion spread.

Students in the Biology 142 class for pre-health majors submitted their own proposals for a final lab, voting to study how the shift to remote learning has affected students’ sleep patterns. Other proposals considered included a study of how the shift to remote learning affected screen time, differences in bird calls between high and low noise pollution areas and an observational study examining how often people touch their faces.

“It’s definitely a theme in biolab, that things don’t always go as planned,” says Sabina Iqbal, a first-year student from Atlanta who recently declared a neuroscience and behavioral biology major. “In that way, it really reflects what is going on in the world right now. It still feels productive.”

Emory College has spent years overhauling its biology labs to modules that focus on active, authentic research. Oxford College, Emory’s original campus that focuses on first- and second-year students, has been on the forefront of such hands-on learning in the sciences for more than a decade.

That overhaul ties undergraduate coursework to real-world research, which often is unpredictable and more apt to be marked by incremental findings and outright failures than scientific breakthroughs.

It also has allowed for a shift to focus on the analytical and communications skills that research requires, says Megan Cole, the senior lecturer who also serves as director of the biology department’s undergraduate laboratories.

For instance, students in the lab for majors had already grown colonies of cellulose-bacteria harvested from bean beetles’ microbiome prior to Emory’s shift to remote learning. Because of that, the students were able to perform the computational work needed to analyze the sequencing results and finish the experiment.

“I have honestly been amazed with the emails from students, thanking me and being grateful for how we’ve transitioned our experiments,” Cole says.

The department surveys students each year to determine whether the lab set-up helps improve students’ perceptions of research and confidence in their scientific skills.

No doubt the survey this spring will show how more students talk with others about their work, given that many are living with inquiring family members. It also may reveal the importance of faculty staying connected with students, not only because of the current upheaval.

“If there is a silver lining to this, I think people are developing a heightened appreciation of the in-person dimension we excel at,” says Steven L’Hernault, chair of the biology department. 

Using changes to students’ advantage

Knowing that remote learning cannot fully replicate the lab experience has helped shape what is feasible.

To mimic the feeling of small working groups – most labs have no more than 15 students – biology instructors are hosting around-the-clock Zoom hours. Students can get the same one-on-one feedback they’ve come to expect or just ask a quick question if they are stuck.

“The circumstances have jolted us all into realizing we have to be supportive of each other,” says Rachelle Spell, the department’s director of undergraduate studies. “Many of our students are having very difficult personal situations, so it’s more important than ever that we check in with them and empower them to see that what they’re learning now could make a real impact in the world.”

First-year student Siri Peddineni counts herself lucky to be safely ensconced with family in Florida, although the move to remote learning kept her from joining Cassandra Quave’s ethnobotany lab as an undergraduate researcher.

Her perspective on sorting out her future – such as whether her medical school plans will include a joint PhD or shift entirely to research – and the scientific process itself without being in a physical lab has been shaped in part by her 97-year-old neighbor.

“She can remember people still talking about the 1918 flu pandemic, growing up in the Depression and living through World War II. She says she’s never seen anything like this but that you learn from it every time,” Peddineni says. “My freshman year didn’t go the way I wanted, but I am learning from it anyway.”

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