Office Hours: Teaching Biology with Virtual Labs (Kyle Bartow)
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Out of necessity, faculty have creatively transformed their classes since the pandemic began. In this series, West End Learning celebrates their efforts and shares best practices, lessons learned, and recommended resources that extend into the future of higher education.
Kyle Bartow (Indian River State College)
Kyle Bartow is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Indian River State College. He recently shared his insights with West End Learning on how he adapted his science lectures and labs in response to COVID-19.
What was the biggest change you had to make?
In addition to shifting his biology classes online, Kyle had to adapt the labs to virtual labs so that the students could complete them remotely. To accomplish this, he created different simulations through Labster. Although the lab simulations do not allow students to gain hands-on experience, they allow learning in a different way that applies the information that they have learned in lectures to a specific scenario.
For one simulation, students are presented with a dead bear and asked to figure out
what it ate that caused it to die. In that scenario, the students need to analyze the cells around the bear as well as inside the bear’s mouth. Students look at the cells of animals and plants in the area, then compare them. Eventually, they are instructed to separate the cells according to their common features.
At this point, the lab simulation directs them to look at cell walls. “Plant cells have cell walls, and then the other cells that you pick out don't, so it gets them comparing and contrasting different things,” Kyle noted. Next, the students complete an exercise in which they build a cell themselves. Feedback from the lab simulation guides them until their cell is complete. Along the way, students are answering quiz questions and getting more familiar with cells.
The labs worked well, according to Kyle, but they didn’t prepare students for the hands-on experience of using equipment in the lab. Kyle explains, “They put together a microscope, but they don't really know how to use a microscope.”
What surprised you the most over the past year?
“There's a lot of talk about these students being technologically adept, but they aren't as used to technology as we expect them to be.” For example, Kyle’s students encountered challenges turning on cameras, attaching cameras, and giving browsers permission to access cameras. Some didn’t know how to look at their own devices to determine if they had enough memory and other specifications needed to run software such as Labster. Internet access was also an issue for some students who were dependent on the library to connect.
How did you adapt your equipment to accommodate the transition to online learning?
Kyle needed a technical upgrade, so he asked the experts. “I was able to contact the people that I follow on Twitch and ask them what they use, because they have the experience streaming out to thousands of people watching them. All these things that I use for video game purposes, I was able to reimagine and use for educational purposes.”
How has communication worked between you and your students?
Kyle noticed that students aren’t as likely to speak up when in a virtual setting, which
makes class discussions challenging. None of his students have contacted him during his virtual office hours, either. “They're all content with sending an email and me responding, so most of my job is answering emails all day.”
Student engagement was more successful with the Science Club. Students have met for activities like removing invasive exotic plants or doing beach or trail cleanups. “A few weeks ago, they did GPS marking of gopher tortoise homes in one of the parks,” Kyle said. He also mentioned that his students are doing a horseshoe crab monitoring project and tardigrade research. Outdoor activities had the advantage of bringing students together while classes were still at a distance.
Finally, if you had to go back to last March and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Like many educators, Kyle has stayed up late (at times until 3 a.m.) and devoted many hours to putting together new classes and labs. Finding time to do that work while spending time with his family was difficult and left little time to himself. His advice would be, “Try not to overwork myself. Give myself some time to do other things.”
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