How to Prepare Science Students to Go Out and Change the World - The Labster Podcast, Episode 19
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to the Labster Podcast. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, thank you for everything you do to empower the next generation of scientists at Labster. Our mission is to support you as you prepare your students to change the world. Our host is Dr. SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's virtual labs simulations for students in high school, college and university.
April [00:00:36] This is part two of our special conversation with Dr. Lori Banks, a biology professor at Bates College. We're finding out more about her strategy to give her students early exposure to research experiences and internship opportunities that help all her students, and especially her first generation and BIPOC students, to gain the confidence they need to explore careers in STEM. Let's rejoin the conversation now.
SJ [00:01:04] What drives you to involve students at such an early stage in those life experiences?
Lori Banks [00:01:10] Yeah, I think it's super important, just even at the level of exposure for students to start having experiences where they feel agency and ownership about something within the situation. You know, technically speaking, in terms of the skill set that those students have, they may be able to assist with autoclaving, bacterial media or something where we're not totally dependent on the accuracy of their calculations or something, but they feel able to contribute something meaningful to the overall goals and the productivity of the lab so that as they get more comfortable, you know, they have some kind of space to try new things.
Lori Banks [00:01:55] And, you know, if they have the space to be able to try something and they know that they are valued and they know that they can go to a space where people will treat them with respect, you know, they're going to be more likely to have a good experience with that and pursue that. And so I think that it's important to create those spaces so that whoever walks through the door, they may decide that it's not for them, but for the ones who are really talented or have a drive and ambition in that area, they at least have somewhere to work that out and express and nurture it.
SJ [00:02:36] It sounds like that's a quite a subtle but also strong way to build agency for the students as well to really help them take ownership of what it is they want to do. So, you know, I come to have this experience and they say, you know what? Not for me, don't like the smell of growth medium, can't stomach that. Which I have had a student turn around and say, like, I love microbiology. I just can't stomach the smell. Fair enough. They at least can take an informed decision based on my own experiences. That sounds super cool.
Lori Banks [00:03:11] Yeah, I think the biggest part of that is just them not choosing to do something because of a negative interaction that they've had with the professor, which has unfortunately been more common than it should be with those of us in previous generations where somebody says, 'Well, you know, while your kind of people don't do that 'or 'that's not really a woman thing’ or whatever, both of which I have personally heard.
Lori Banks [00:03:42] And so, you know, I feel like just crafting the environment so that you can allow people's genius to flow is the most important thing that we can do.
Lori Banks [00:03:54] You know, in my research, we work on novel antiviral development, which is obviously very needed right now. But the bigger thing that we're doing is training people to feel confident in themselves and their scientific ability so they can go out and change the world. You know, being comfortable with who they are so that as they come upon people who don't understand how genius can exist in the package that they present it, they can look at those people and say, 'you know, my genius doesn't require your approval or your permission. And I have work to do to go save the world, so get up and get out of the way.'.
SJ [00:04:37] I know. Do you find that when you create these spaces that you naturally or you can organically get kind of cross-pollination of, you know, I'm thinking about my experiences of being in lab or getting lab experience as a postdoc or a master's student or you meet a prof is in a different area. And you know, these surreptitious conversations can happen. Do you find that you see kind of. Is that all you've created opportunity for fortuitous conversations? Do you see them happening?
Lori Banks [00:05:09] Yeah, I definitely do. And it is, It's interesting to see the way that the students sort of interact with one another, interact with other professors on campus, the choices that they make about the internships that they want to pursue over the summer. And even now that I've had two years of students come through the lab, the choices that they're making about graduate schools. You can definitely see that there's a difference in students when they can come to lab and they feel at home, or at the very least, not, you know, micro-aggressed at some point in their day where you know, they can just be in a space where they can do the science and nobody's questioning their intelligence.
Lori Banks [00:05:56] It makes a huge difference, not just in what work they're able to produce, but how they see themselves and the goals that they're setting for themselves. It's kind of amazing like I knew I wanted to, you know, have my little small nerd army of five students and you know that they had the capabilities to do some really amazing things, but they didn't know it yet, necessarily when they walked into my lab. And so seeing several of them now, at the point where they are very aware that they can breathe fire and they know how to use that, it's amazing to see what they're doing.
SJ [00:06:37] Is this an experience that can be afforded for the majority of students or is it something that students have to apply for and be selected for? How does it work?
Lori Banks [00:06:45] Yeah. So in the early days of the lab, a year and a half ago when we first started taking students, I did have an application process. I haven't had to have one based on the bachelor's thesis mechanism that we have currently. But we'll see what happens in the coming year. It is now November, and I already have some requests from students in three departments about summer research for next year. So we'll see how it goes. We may have to change the way that we're doing that. Yeah.
SJ [00:07:21] Okay. Wow, that's cool that you get such good uptake. How long is this connected to? I remember from the SO:Connected, the SO:Connected talk that you did, you mentioned your STEM Scholars program. Is this related to the STEM Scholars program?
Lori Banks [00:07:37] I have had some sort of cross-pollination between those groups, but they're not officially connected. So I have an independent research grant that funds my novel antiviral development work in my research lab. But the STEM Scholars program focuses on first gen and BIPOC students.
Lori Banks [00:07:57] Again, sort of this idea of helping them understand the off-menu items that are necessary for, in this case, sort of scaled back for the undergraduate internship applications. CV development, personal statement development. How to contact people to do job shadowing and thinking more broadly about what your professional possibilities are with a degree in chemistry, physics or biology or biochemistry.
SJ [00:08:27] I love that you have this kind of two-tier approach. I could see somebody going through both. So you got your STEM Scholars program for the early stage undergrads and then you've got this graduate program to help somebody go even further. That's so cool.
Lori Banks [00:08:39] It is, and it's interesting that I came to this work with the Post Baccalaureate or pre graduate students first and that now, after having helped develop that curriculum, I'm now working with the undergraduates. It sort of helps being able to do like a backward design kind of curriculum work where I know very intimately what they're going to need in order to get into graduate school and be successful in their first couple of years and well on their way in their thesis research.
Lori Banks [00:09:18] And so what helps me think, you know, very clearly and very intentionally, I think about how to coach the undergrads in terms of really thinking about goal setting, self-awareness, stress management, you know, in all of these habits that it would behoove them to develop well early so that when they come to graduate school, they really have good practice in these areas and they'll be able to just sort of you know, coast instead of hitting the learning curve the way that a lot of others of us have.
SJ [00:09:58] It sounds really like a really valuable set of experiences for somebody to have. If they feel that they need to be empowered in that way, or maybe they don't even know.
Lori Banks [00:10:06] A lot of them don't know we find and it's sort of, you know, I have this idea of what it looks like to be a doctor from stuff I saw on TV. But outside of that, their in-person or lived experience with people who have these professions and, you know, live the lifestyle of a doctor who has to be on call sometimes is very limited. And so their functional knowledge of what they're getting into again is just they don't know what they don't know.
SJ [00:10:37] Yeah, for sure. So thinking about biology, because I know it's a big part of your teaching. You taught before the pandemic. You've taught all the way through it. And I was wondering, as we've talked about all these different programs and the different ways that people can get involved with education or kind of be empowered within their education. What's your perspective on the changes over the past few years? How has it impacted you? Has it changed the way that you've talked? Have you adopted any new technologies? What's it been like?
Lori Banks [00:11:09] Yeah. So I was right there with the rest of the educators in the audience where March 13th was the day our campus shut down. We had a week to pivot all of our curriculum from, you know, a completely in-person format with no social distancing or anything to, in my case, asynchronous online completely because all of our students had to evacuate the campus. And then I didn't see them again until the following school year. Yeah, it was just like everybody disappeared. And, you know, we graded as best we could. We tried to deliver the rest of the curriculum as best we could. But, you know, it was clear that everybody was very traumatized by the whole situation and it just it was not ideal with that. No.
Lori Banks [00:12:04] I think I've discovered as a educator that I am more resourceful and flexible than I thought I could be. I don't know that I would have had another opportunity to really test myself in that way. But it definitely makes me more comfortable about thinking of doing things with my classes back in-person that are sort of different and not super traditional learning methods. We play a lot of video games in my classes now where, you know, the information is still being delivered. But again, it makes my students think in a different way. So for me, that was a, I don't want to sound like a good thing, but it helped me see that I was more flexible than I thought I could be in terms of how I've changed my coursework. I definitely am still trying to focus on the fact that I'm teaching humans who are still being traumatized and really make sure I'm keeping an eye on the amount of work that I'm giving them and minimize the amount of, you know, unnecessary stress that I'm putting on them.
Lori Banks [00:13:16] So as much as we can focus efforts on active learning, take home exams rather than timed in-person exams, those kinds of things and really following up with students about, you know, potential barrier issues.
Lori Banks [00:13:31] That's really where my efforts are focused right now is just making sure that they're OK because, you know, I've had students who individually have been ill and been Covid-infected, had family members who were infected, had family members pass away during the school year. And so I think it's naive for me to think that that's not going to have an effect on them and that somehow they're going to be able to just brush that stuff off and pick up my textbook and be like, 'OK, I'm going to worry about, you know, what the inner membrane of gram negative e. Coli looks like.' I don't think that's realistic, right? And it's not. It's not helpful for them. So I just really try to focus on support the humanity, you know, deliver the message the best way that we can or to facilitate the learning. And don't try to push it too hard.
SJ [00:14:28] I get that. That's so cool. And you know, that human centered approach is something that, you know, feels like it's becoming recognized more and more as just as important as the learning outcomes. Sometimes that kind of experience is truly vital to coping students of the future, encountering graduates of the future and our next generation of scientists.
Lori Banks [00:14:50] Yeah, it's funny. You used the word culturing, you know, to my knowledge, this trait, it really is like you need the right environment. You need the things that are going to help them thrive, yeah, it's not too different.
SJ [00:15:06] Not at all. Culture is a word that often gets confused in my head. But it's exactly right. You know, when we talk about the culture of the university, it's all those things. It's got the salt right? You've got your osmotic balance right? Well, sometimes it stinks. You know, sometimes you're all in it and you know, everything's just flowing just right. So I get it. You know those words. There's a reason we use that word, right?
SJ [00:15:34] So with that in mind, like what does the future look like to you for edtech use? Do you think there's a place for it? What kind of things if you had a magic wand, which you could wave it, what would that do for you that it doesn't do now?
Lori Banks [00:15:47] Oh, I'm actually finding a lot of options out there for different kinds of just more active activities, if that's a thing. And I would just like to see those expanded. I know that there's not something you know out there for every single metabolic pathway that exists or, you know, every single topic you could think of within the cadre of chemistry, biology, physics. But just expanding those options would be really nice because those are really good reinforcers that I'm finding to use with my students.
Lori Banks [00:16:30] So, you know, it's good that they can initially get sort of a first pass of the information from the textbook. But I'm finding that particularly with the Labster modules that I use in almost all my classes now, finding another way to stimulate the neurons is always better. And so rather than just give them, read the chapter, answer these questions, read the chapter, make a mind map, whatever, you know, we need different ways for them to engage that information. And for me, it's you know, a bonus if they are able to now start incorporating some laboratory techniques as well. And so that's one of the reasons that we've been using that as much as we have.
SJ [00:17:13] Yeah, for sure. That's interesting. I suppose you've got that dual, you know, one of the main ways that we see the Labster simulations implemented in courses is that pre-lab, and it's something we've talked before about some of the the podcasts. Yeah, but the idea of reinforcement and consolidation is one that I think is an interesting and underused use case for virtual labs that actually you can get your information from other places and tie it all together.
Lori Banks [00:17:40] Right
SJ [00:17:41] And reinforce that information and almost kind of see it demonstrated in situ with like a guided learning experience. That exact story of why you learn this thing, like what is it used for? What's the context? What does this mean for medicine? What does this mean for like health care? So, yeah, I'm with you. I would like to also see and look at the theory side in the context side for reinforcement and consolidation of knowledge. There's more capstone experiences as opposed to maybe the preliminary experiences.
Lori Banks [00:18:08] Well, and I think they're really learning a lot of what we think has to be covered in a standard didactic way in the upfront classes when they're going through the capstone to a lot of what we do in my lab is point mutations of individual proteins to see how we can change the biochemical activity. And so in looking at how these different point mutations are affecting the activity of the proteins, they're learning amino acid structures and thinking about what they mean, you know like building blocks in the protein rather than just memorizing the chemical structure, which I think is 100 percent better way to learn that.
SJ [00:18:51] I completely agree. And you know, there's always a codon wheel to look up. If you can't remember the triplets, I know I still have to look up the codon wheel every now and again. I mean, if you're not interacting with it every day, like why would you remember that stuff? But what's more important is that you understand the mechanism behind what's going on and you can decode that problem around it, got you. Lori, your mind is a beautiful thing, and I've really enjoyed talking to you about all of these things.
April [00:19:19] So I have a question, Lori, since our time is coming to a close, but I wanted to ask you if there's anything more that you'd like to share or give voice to before we close out this episode.
Lori Banks [00:19:30] Um sure, yeah, I really enjoyed this conversation, first of all. But I think it's super important to have these conversations and for people to know and understand that making sure that our students are engaged in the material and feel welcome in the space is as important, if not more important, than the content that we're actually delivering.
Lori Banks [00:19:55] Because if they don't feel like we see them, they're not going to hear what we say.
Lori Banks [00:19:59] And so while a lot of this work, sometimes, is accessory to what we think as the main curriculum that we see, especially in the STEM disciplines. I think that we definitely need to focus on it more given sort of the history of how all of this was put together so that we could make sure that we're not missing out on genius that could be, you know, life-altering, world-saving stuff.
Lori Banks [00:20:29] Again, just because the thoughts or the words didn't come out of the face that we thought it should come out of. So I just would encourage other educators to think about these issues of how our students feel in these spaces, just as not accessory to the science that we teach because they're not going to hear the science if they don't think we see them.
April [00:20:55] Well, that brings us to the end of our two-part special episode with Dr. Lori Banks. Thank you, Lori, for sharing your insight that seeing students as whole people is just as critical to their educations as it is to teach them science skills. Both SJ and I were very inspired by Lori's words when she said that the world can't afford to miss out on the genius of even a single student. And thank you for listening. We invite you to send us your feedback at info at Labster dot com. If you like this episode, we hope you'll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. Until next time, keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.