This article was originally published by Genes to Genomes.
As on-campus meetings for laboratory courses are cancelled, you might be wondering if you’ll be able to meet your goals in a virtual environment. It will take some adjustment, but it is doable if you are strategic about what you want your students to learn and why. Begin by asking yourself, “What was the goal of the lab session and lab course?” Typically, lab courses allow students to gain some exposure to specific techniques and instrumentation. Ultimately, however, the larger purpose of labs is to allow students to apply the process of science and develop scientific reasoning skills. With this new framing, here are three approaches that allow students to conduct authentic research (without setting foot in the lab!).
Do a structured analysis of primary literature: Engaging with primary literature promotes the development of data interpretation skills and allows students to see how specific techniques fit into their scientific discipline. However, left to their own devices, novices get overwhelmed by jargon and technical details (Lie et al. 2016) and lose the forest for the trees. Therefore, it is important to structure this task and guide students’ reading to clarify critical concepts and emphasize aspects most relevant to your course goals and learning outcomes.
Analyze real-world data sets: Ask students to analyze and visualize real-world data, then interpret and contextualize their findings. This will allow them to practice and improve their data analysis and quantitative reasoning skills. Moreover, compared to cook-book labs, using authentic data is more interesting and engaging for students (Kjelvik & Schultheis 2019). Try these freely available data sources that include advice on implementation and execution:
Write mock grant proposals: Research proposals require students to synthesize and critique primary literature, think creatively about open questions in a line of inquiry, and design studies to test their ideas. Best practices for such assignments include scaffolding the grant writing process with multiple staggered deadlines, sharing rubrics and evaluation criteria, and integrating opportunities for feedback and deliberate practice. The articles below contain several useful resources including grading rubrics and template assignment directions.
To make class time feel engaging, ask students to prepare parts of the assignment tasks in advance and spend class time having students work in small groups to improve and iterate on their work. Peer instruction will help students learn from each other and give them a valuable opportunity to connect, which is especially important if they are all suddenly remote. For instance, you might follow up on grant proposals with a mock grant panel in class. Each of these strategies can also be adapted to asynchronous classes; Instructors could spread assignment tasks over several weeks, and students would use collaborative document editing tools (such as Google Documents) to exchange feedback asynchronously. Collaboration is an essential part of the scientific process; this just might be an opportunity to teach students more than they could have learned in a traditional lab.
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Itagaki H. (2013). The Use of Mock NSF-type Grant Proposals and Blind Peer Review as the Capstone Assignment in Upper-Level Neurobiology and Cell Biology Courses. Journal of undergraduate neuroscience education : JUNE : a publication of FUN, Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, 12(1), A75–A84.
Kjelvik, M. K., & Schultheis, E. H. (2019). Getting Messy with Authentic Data: Exploring the Potential of Using Data from Scientific Research to Support Student Data Literacy. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(2). doi: 10.1187/cbe.18-02-0023
Köver, H., Wirt, S. E., Owens, M. T., & Dosmann, A. J. (2014). “Thinking like a Neuroscientist”: Using Scaffolded Grant Proposals to Foster Scientific Thinking in a Freshman Neuroscience Course. Journal of undergraduate neuroscience education: JUNE: a publication of FUN, Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, 13(1), A29–A40.
Lie, R., Abdullah, C., He, W., & Tour, E. (2016). Perceived Challenges in Primary Literature in a Master’s Class: Effects of Experience and Instruction. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(4). doi: 10.1187/cbe.15-09-0198
Teaching Quantitative Biology Online. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://qubeshub.org/community/groups/quant_bio_online/resources