Evolution & Adaptation: Introductory Biology Labs in the Time of SARS-CoV2



By Dr. Christopher Peter Malinoski, Laboratory Manager, Department of Biological Sciences


Adaptation (noun): modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment (from Marriam-Webster).


BIOL 1107 is a large introductory course at the University of Connecticut, Storrs campus, servicing nearly 1,300 undergraduates on an annual basis. The course guides students through a rigorous life sciences curriculum delivered through both lecture and laboratory components.


The laboratory portion of the course is focused on teaching both concepts and techniques. Units of lab exercises are offered focusing on various broad topics, like biochemistry, cell physiology, and molecular genetics. Students are also taught to use basic laboratory equipment, like microscopes, spectrophotometers, and pipettes.


I mention this to emphasize that the laboratory curriculum was designed to provide students with an authentic laboratory experience. To say that we were unprepared for the sudden emergence of SARS-CoV2 and the COVID19 pandemic is perhaps an understatement. When the difficult decision was made to offer BIOL 1107 via distance learning during the Fall 2020 semester, I knew that a significant challenge lay ahead.


The Process of Adaptation


The concept of adaptation is a common one in biology. You might as well consider the sudden change from in-person to distance learning labs as a rather radical shift in the learning environment. In a biological sense, then, we were being asked to alter the structure of the laboratory portion of the course to better fit the limitations (and strengths) of this new, online environment. How could we adapt a course designed to provide in-person, hands-on experiences for a fully hands-off format?


I began by searching for existing commercial products. Those that I found varied in approach to the material. Some were essentially online textbooks with inline questions and feedback, whereas others offered simulated virtual lab environments, like sophisticated educational video games. The simulated lab products were technologically impressive, but I had concerns that students might not own computers powerful enough to run the software. Further, while the simulation might provide a good visual representation of a lab exercise – for example, clicking and dragging a micropipette to a given solution – such an activity was really only assessing a student’s ability to arrange the steps of a procedure in the proper order. While this might help the student understand the order of operations, so could an ordering of question-types in our typical Blackboard LMS environment (HuskyCT).


Ultimately, both solutions had a fundamental problem; neither would provide students with the tactile experience and muscle memory that comes from physically working in a laboratory. While I did not – and still do not – have a solution to this problem, I was not convinced that these commercial products offered significant value to the student beyond what we might be able to develop ourselves.


With the support of the faculty instructors for the course, we began to adapt the BIOL 1107 laboratory content to the online-only format ourselves. The general course format was as follows: Teaching Assistants would hold synchronous lab meetings at the regularly scheduled times using the Collaborate video conferencing tool on Blackboard. During these meetings, Teaching Assistants would remotely administer password-protected quizzes and deliver lectures on the relevant lab topics for the week. Students could be split up into smaller break-out groups and tasked with participating in discussion topics relevant to the current exercise. Additionally, on their own time, students are required to read through the exercises in the lab manual and to complete weekly assignments.


I was bolstered in my decision by the fact that the course was not starting from square-one; the BIOL 1107 labs already had a robust online presence in place. In 2015, in conjunction with the eCampus Learning Team and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, a modern Blackboard site for the laboratory portion of the course was developed. In addition to redesigning the layout of that site for more intuitive navigation, I created student-centric learning objectives for each lab exercise. With the help of several Teaching Assistants from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, all the laboratory quizzes were redesigned to fit an online format that students would access in-lab using University-owned tablet computers. Much of these existing resources could be used in the distance-learning lab environment with little to no additional alteration.


We would supplement this online experience with as many additional online resources as we could. In the time since the collaboration with the eCampus team, I spearheaded a project to create introductory background videos covering topics from each lab exercise. Students could watch these videos to supplement the synchronous lectures and being available online meant that students could watch and re-watch the concept videos as needed. With the increased dependence students would have on these videos in the new course format, I tried to incorporate best practices wherever possible. Some videos were edited into 5- to 7-minute segments, and others had to be filmed again.


Next, thanks to the invaluable contributions of the BIOL Lab Services staff, we began the laborious process of planning and filming a series of demonstration videos. These varied from simple equipment tutorial videos to full overviews of performing the laboratory exercises. Staff were able to capture the needed footage using smartphone and tablet cameras over the course of just a few weeks. I then spent several more weeks editing the videos, adding title cards and speeding up sections of the video demonstrating repetitious physical manipulations. For exercises where it made sense, we filmed videos demonstrating experimental results, and we took photographs of samples both before and after the exercises so that students would be able to interpret experimental results for themselves.


To once again address the elephant in the room, these demonstration videos are not a 1:1 replacement for the traditional BIOL 1107 laboratory experience. Obviously, watching a video of equipment being used does not create the same type of muscle memory gained by physically working in the laboratory. However, to put this in another context, if I were going to try to change the brakes in my car – I will be the first to admit that I am not mechanically inclined – would I rather try to do so on my own, or with the assistance of a YouTube tutorial video? For many visually oriented learners, seeing the laboratory equipment being properly used in a video can be a valuable supplement to the experimental protocol written in the lab manual.


The Evolution of a Course


As I said up front, reconsidering the BIOL 1107 laboratory experience in the face of the pandemic was a significant challenge. However, it was important to realize that it was also an opportunity. How could we best utilize the strengths of the new course modality? What skills could we teach that would be equally as valuable and better suited to the online format? (The question is meant to be rhetorical, but the answer in our case was renewed focus on the principles of the scientific method and on scientific writing skills.)


These types of compromises were necessary in adapting the BIOL 1107 laboratories to the distance-learning modality, and I would like to emphasize that these were not easy choices to make. I think the following sentiments are ones that many educators will identify with: the prior course design was not broken, and years of iteration had resulted in the what we considered to be the very best laboratory experience that we could offer. At many times during the adaptation process I felt as though we were being forced to leave behind some of the best and most valuable parts of the student experience. I could not shake the feeling that I was somehow betraying the natural evolution of the course.


However, I realized that I was making a fundamental mistake in my understanding of evolution. Anyone that has taught evolution knows that it is a common misconception, the idea that evolution results in organisms that are perfectly adapted to a given environment. But that’s not how evolution works. Evolution’s dirty secret is that it often only results in solutions that work well enough. To adapt to the pandemic environment, the BIOL 1107 laboratory experience would need to be different by necessity. The experience might not be perfect, but it would be different.


And it would work.