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How to teach biology during a pandemic

For Ada Lovelace Day, three Concordia profs share tips for course adaptations under COVID-19
October 13, 2020
By Elisabeth Faure

People in raincoats, digging in a grassy field, with autumn leaves and maple trees around. Several students told professor Emma Despland how good it felt to actually be physically meeting with classmates and to be doing some work with their hands. | Photo by Anne-Sophie Caron

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Concordia teachers to come up with new and creative ways to teach.

Ada Lovelace Day is held on the second Tuesday of October to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). To mark the event this year, three female professors from the Department of Biology discuss the impact of these unprecedented times on their courses.

Masked field work and study buddies

When COVID-19 hit, professor Emma Despland needed to make changes to her BIOL 450 -Techniques in Ecology class, which mixes tutorials and field work.

“The tutorial component has had to go online, for obvious reasons, and all indoor lab activities have been replaced with outdoor ones,” Despland says. “So, it has stayed a hands-on practical course.”

To minimize person-to-person contact, she replaced group work with a “study buddy” system. Students are paired with a single partner for the term. Despland says that in addition to minimizing contact, this allows students to avoid the pitfalls of isolation during the pandemic.

“From my preparation, I learned that dropout rates are higher for online classes than for in-person ones, as students who fall behind can more easily feel isolated, get discouraged and give up. Having a buddy should help with that.”

Since the pairs have to respect social distancing and wear masks when working in the field, the first day of field work had some unintentionally funny consequences.

“When we met no one recognized each other, because we had all been interacting online without cameras, and then we met with masks on and no one knew who was who!”

Outdoor activities include photographing and identifying butterflies and uploading data to a citizen science project, comparing earthworm densities in different habitats at the City Farm School and using lichen as an indicator of air quality in different parts of the Montreal region.

Several students told Despland how good it felt to actually be physically meeting with classmates and working with their hands.

For the at-home component, done using Microsoft Teams, Despland is emphasizing interactive work. In one recent class, a “mark-recapture” exercise that typically asks students to estimate the number of insects in a terrarium in a lab setting was replaced by a simple exercise of estimating the number of beans in a two-pound bag.

The answer?

“Between 2,000 and 5,000, depending on the type of bean,” Despland reveals.

While she says that online teaching can be three times more work than in the classroom, Despland feels things are going well. “So far, the reaction has been mostly positive.”

Designing green landscaping projects for Concordia from home

Assistant professor Carly Ziter had to completely redesign the concept of her BIOL 398 – Ecology of Urban Environments class, a brand-new course for which she had initially wanted to have a large outdoor component.

“This course was conceptualized as an opportunity for students to engage in place-based, outdoor learning together,” Ziter explains.

But when COVID-19 protocols made gathering together a group of 60 impossible, Ziter made the decision to pivot and create an entirely remote class.

In this new model, the students are supplied with content like video lectures and independent readings at the start of each week. Later, the class meets on Teams for an hour of discussion to give the students an opportunity to engage with each other and the teaching team.

Rather than high-stakes midterms or exams, the students complete a series of individual and group assessments regularly throughout the course.

Ziter admits it was a big challenge to maintain the original spirit of the course.

“It was important to me that I still found ways to integrate elements of place-based and outdoor learning into the course assessments, that students had opportunities to work together and that everybody got outside!”

To address these goals, Ziter added two elements to the course.

First, the class has partnered with Concordia’s Office of Sustainability and Facilities Management on a campus ecological landscaping project. It’s part of the new Concordia as a Sustainability Living Lab initiative within the forthcoming Sustainability Action Plan.

Students will work virtually in groups to create landscaping plans for both Concordia campuses that integrate perennial native, pollinator and edible species.

“One of the key lessons of our class is that to conserve species in our rapidly urbanizing world, we need to support biodiversity where we live. Working in partnership with key campus planning stakeholders is a way for students to really put into practice many of the concepts they are learning in class.”

Second, students keep a field journal of their urban nature observations throughout the term.

“This gives students the opportunity to explore an aspect of their local environment they are particularly interested in, such as insects, trees or water, and to integrate other subject areas and talents like photography and sketching with biology,” Ziter says.

She adds that in COVID-19 times, when stress levels can be high, communication with students is key.

“I make sure to seek out feedback from my students regularly and have made it clear that if we need to adapt the course going forward, we will.”

Instructional videos to engage students outside a lab setting

For Madoka Gray-Mitsumune, a senior lecturer, COVID-19 restrictions posed particular challenges to her BIOL 368 – Genetics and Cell Biology Laboratory course.

“While we were authorized to offer in-person labs, we had to cut the contact time dramatically to minimize the COVID-19 transmission risk. This was a huge challenge for us,” she explains.

“Our lab procedures are, in a sense, like cooking instructions. There are many specific procedures that need to be shown to the students before they can carry out the tasks.”

Prior to this term, these procedural instructions were given by teaching lab technician Robert Carson and teaching assistants during the lab. But Gray-Mitsumune and Carson quickly realized that things would have to change.

“Talking loud is a risky indoor activity, even if we are wearing masks. So, we came up with the idea to give these instructions entirely online. Then, when the students come to the lab, they can focus only on their lab work. You can think of it as ‘flipped’ instruction.”

To make sure the students would understand what they had to do, Gray-Mitsumune and her team developed instructional videos, which presented its own set of challenges.

“We are not experts in video,” she readily admits. “And iPhones can only do so much.”

Thankfully, the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) stepped in to lend a hand.

The result? A series of 20 slick, engaging videos including embedded quizzes and activities. “We wanted to make sure that the students are actively engaged while watching.”

Gray-Mitsumune is full of praise for the centre and Mohammed Elkhairy[AF1] , the CTL video expert who worked with Carson to create the videos over the summer. “They are better than any of the lab instruction videos I’ve seen.”

Feedback from the students has been great, she adds. “I can say that it is working. I think the students are learning better and gaining confidence because of that.”


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