Teaching From My Kitchen Table: Education in Trying Times

This month we are introducing you to a few of women who are essential to our core value of empowering women. In our Center, students and staff work to increase knowledge and understanding of our research areas through interdisciplinary collaborations, education, and community engagement programs. In order to accomplish broader goals like decreasing gender-based health disparities, many of our Center members work to increase scientific knowledge and problem-solving through student education both at Duke and in the Durham community.

This week, we chatted (virtually) with two GWHT women who are invested in educating and empowering tomorrow’s scientists, researchers, and problem-solvers: Megan Madonna and Erika Chelales. In the following interviews, they discuss how their teaching has been affected by COVID-19.

Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What does online education look like for you and your students?

So I think it’s a good place to start by showcasing what my class looked like for my students before COVID-19. The demographics of my students are diverse in almost every sense of the word: an age range of 17–65, diverse gender identities, socioeconomic, and origin. I have students from around the world and throughout the very different areas of Durham. Each with a different reason for taking my General Biology night class, so I always need a unifying theme for my 40-person class. I believe the most important part of my class is increasing science literacy. I do this by applying basic biology concepts to topics of health, the environment, or other ideas my students readily interact with on a regular basis.

Going online this semester was interesting. We went online because of a biological-based reason, so I wanted that front and center in my class but going online also did something more. I found going online completely eliminated the concept of diversity or how I saw diversity in my class but at the same time, and even more strikingly, widened or exaggerated the differences in my students.

Yes, when the entire class decides to not turn on their webcam so I’m rambling on about Mendel and genetics to a repeating pattern of muted, black boxes, they all appears the same, but at the same time, the students had new unique ways of turning diversity on its head. I had many who struggled with internet connection which moved our learning primarily asynchronous; a few students lost their jobs and either struggled to keep up in class or decided to withdraw; and I had others who had medical emergencies rattle their ability to learn effectively.

Science literacy took a whole new role in my course this semester. Following course topics, class time became a time of discussions of epidemiology, vaccine research, biotechnology, and the future of education in this country. I found students coming to class with their own curious questions about primary research or new reports and what followed was awesome. Students could work through answers in real time with their fellow class mates based on systems and principles of biology.

Q: Have you ever taught virtually before? If so, how does this experience compare?

NO! This is definitely not what I thought my second semester of teaching was going to look like, but I have learned nearly as much as I did my first semester, which is to say a lot.

Q: How do you feel your students adapted to the changes? Looking back, do you think students will be able to handle another semester online?

I think with anything, there is a learning curve. Each time you step foot (or first click on a zoom link) into a new class, as a student, you are expected to learn not only the material of the class but also how you will learn that material, what will be expected of you, how will you be graded, and how do you achieve success in this format.

Sadly, our students were asked to learn this twice this semester. For my students, it was immediately following their midterm, so exactly halfway through their material. As with the beginning of the semester, there was definitely a learning curve which delayed material and ultimately reduced the material we could cover for the semester. But I think teachers and students alike learned a lot more this semester than they otherwise would have. Yes, I think this semester has been challenging, and yes, I don’t think many in my class would enjoy doing this another semester, but I know my students are in my class as part of a larger goal of graduation, a specific job, or transferring to a local university, so I think they will again rise the challenge and take it head on. (I mean after they get past my final, who knows what else they can accomplish).

Q: Tell us about the model of the BME 230 Course. How has the pandemic forced this model to adjust?

The BME230 course is split into two components, lectures and labs, with the ultimate goal of teaching the students to effectively use Human Centered Design in the Service Learning component of the course. The ultimate goal of the service learning component is for student groups to create a hands-on STEM-related educational activity for a local community partner youth group, based on the interests and needs of the community partner.

With a global pandemic, gathering groups of students and youth together to complete a hands-on activity was no longer possible. Although our lectures could still occur online via Zoom, unfortunately, all of the time we had dedicated for students to practice hands-on creation and design in the lab portion of the course was now impossible. Corrine (another graduate student in Dr. Ramanujam’s lab and my co-teacher) and I met to quickly come up with an alternative service learning assignment for the students: an educational video to be distributed to the community partners. As we were just beginning our virtual teaching experience, we didn’t really realize at the time how relevant this assignment was.

Q: Did you ever teach virtually before? If so, how does the experience compare?

I have done my fair share of online tutoring for a variety of subjects. I would say that the biggest difference for virtually teaching a class compared to tutoring is the level of engagement and ability to critically assess student needs.

When you are tutoring a single student online, you engage with them directly and can address material that needs to be explained again or identify more practice problems to walk through with the student. When teaching a class virtually it is much harder to assess the student needs, especially for larger class sizes.

The cohort in this semester’s BME230 class was super active during our in person lectures. They were always volunteering answers and had engaging and intelligent classroom discussions. However, with the lectures and discussions in an online format it was a totally different experience. Students were much quieter when we opened the class for discussion via Zoom. At the beginning it took some prompting to get students to participate. We would give the option for groups to present a potential answer or pose a question to alleviate the pressure from individual students. By the end of the semester students were engaging just as they normally would in the classroom without prompting necessary.

I think there is a learning curve to adjusting to the online classroom. It took our students, and us, a moment to figure out this new teaching setting, but soon the online lectures and discussions became a new normal for us. Similar to online tutoring with a single student, online teaching a larger class size requires more direct conversations with students to identify where they need help, but this is not as simple with a large group as it is with one student. Classroom discussion is daunting for students in a virtual setting. Giving students the opportunity to ask questions and get help or advice in virtual office hours or weekly service learning logs can help make sure students are getting the help they need. We as teachers have to learn how to teach virtually, but students also are learning how to learn virtually, and we need to do our best to create a virtual environment they feel comfortable learning in.

Q: How have you seen your students adapt to online courses?

Our students really impressed us with how quickly they took the new assignment (creating an educational video) in stride and rose above and beyond our expectations. They were creative and innovative not only with what methods they used to teach but also with their audience engagement. The final video projects really showcased how our students adapted to new constraints and rose to the new challenge. The new project also prompted valuable discussion about virtual teaching in general. We found ourselves and our students asking ourselves how we can teach material virtually and how we can replace advantages of hands-on teaching that previously seemed irreplaceable.

Q: How do you feel your students adapted to the changes? Looking back, do you think students will be able to handle another semester online?

I do think our students can handle another semester online. It poses a lot of unique challenges for every student, but I do think our students really rose to the challenge and adapted to the new way of learning. It will be important for educators to consider the different situations every student is in and whether they have the resources to easily participate in online learning and how external stressors may affect their ability to learn.

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