Are you struggling with the fear of trying something new in your classroom? In Part Two of our conversation, Professors Felicia Vulcu and Cailtin Mullarkey talk about their belief that creating a safe and nurturing culture within a classroom community permits both students and teachers to take risks and innovate. We also discuss their favorite edtech tools for biochemistry courses, valuable takeaways from pandemic teaching, and their ideas to quickly train students with hands-on, tactile lab skills when in-person learning resumes at McMaster University.
Ideas for Teaching with Labster (Part 2) - The Labster Podcast Episode 4
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone, my name is April Ondis, and I'm a blogger for Labster, the creator of virtual lab simulations for science students. As always, I'm proud to say that Labster is guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission, so thank you. And let's get started.
April [00:00:35] With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite, SJ Boulton. SJ is an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops new Labster simulations for high school, college and university science students.
April [00:00:52] Today's episode is Part Two of our conversation with Doctors Felicia Vulcu and Caitlin Mallarkey from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Both Felicia and Caitlin are scientists and award-winning teachers use Labster in their in-person and online biochemistry courses. Let's rejoin the conversation now.
SJ [00:01:21] Are you both research-active or you both purely teaching and faculty focused now?
Caitlin [00:01:26] We both have research programs in teaching and learning in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I am a viral immunologist by training and I've been able to keep my hand in some of the lab space activities through some collaborations that I have with colleagues in both biochemistry and the Immunology Institute. But primarily we supervise undergraduates and we think about pedagogical research.
SJ [00:01:54] To what extent do you feel that the research community or the research process, the scientific method influences the way that you design your teaching? Do you feel that you teach in a research led way in terms of scientific basic research, or do you feel that you look more to kind of the literature in terms of scholarship and pedagogy to inform the structure of your courses?
Felicia [00:02:14] So I like to say that I mix both of them. What's really interesting, at least through my reflection, is that the way that I have been trained as a researcher to think about experimental setup, experimental design, you know, the readout, the assumptions, the controls, and all that, it's pretty much on par with educational research. Like just it's the same set up. It's, you know, setting up a process, whatever it may be, whether it be research or a course assessment or course, something that you're going to try on with the students. So that's your set up, doing all the research you can behind the scenes to set it up properly. Then you've got your protocol for how you're going to attempt it. It's going to fail miserably the first time. You take copious notes and you make small changes over and over and over until you get to a successful outcome. That is how I see education and I don't know if it's right or wrong, but I don't have any other way of looking at things.
SJ [00:03:12] I think much like when I was a budding PhD student in the lab, the idea of failing first time around as a lecturer feels terrifying, especially when I've got like, you know, when I was teaching first-year biochemistry, for example, there were 450 students counting on me to teach them. Right. And I wanted to give them a good experience. But on the same hand, you know, as we're still developing as educators as well, and there are tried and tested methods that we can implement to ensure that the students get the knowledge transfer that they're looking for. What advice would you give somebody who was maybe looking to try out Labster but was a little scared of failing the students on trying something new.
Felicia [00:03:56] My only advice always is to be transparent, be yourself, be humble and fail openly, and always have a positive outlook towards failure. That's why I think it's really important to set up a very positive environment, safe environment and be very open when things don't work. You have no idea how much students appreciate that. Just coming up and saying, you know, I'm struggling with this. Today is a rough day for me and this is why. And they appreciate it. And they are so forgiving. And also, I mean, to extend to that, you also need to be forgiving when they're having a rough day as well. So I think first and foremost, work really hard to establish a culture of positivity, inclusiveness, respect, safety and nurture. And then you can try anything.
SJ [00:04:42] What do you think, Caitlin? Do you think the students are quite so forgiving? I've had some very choice experiences in return.
Caitlin [00:04:48] Yeah. Yeah, I think I think we all have had definitely some difficult experiences in the teaching sphere. But yeah, I definitely echo what Felicia is saying is that, you know, I endeavor to be very transparent about what my expectations are and what I'm looking for a student to get out of a particular exercise or assessment. And I'm open with the fact that it may not work out perfectly. Nobody's perfect. I'm not perfect, but we'll figure it out together. And so I think that, you know, you don't really have anything to lose. And I think some of the, of course, anxiety in trying something new, but usually we're better for it in the end. And what could really go wrong here, right? Maybe in my mind, there's only things to be gained from trying new approaches and really pushing yourself, especially when it comes to teaching and pedagogical practices. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to try something new, especially if it's different than maybe the way you learned or anything you've ever done before. But you're probably going to be a better instructor for it in the end because you will have learned something along the way. And then that can inform your next course or your next set of practices.
Felicia [00:06:08] You cannot take risk without failure. There's just not it's not possible. So if you're not failing at something when you're teaching, then you're not innovating enough. You're not taking enough risk, in my opinion.
SJ [00:06:19] Interesting points. I wonder as well, Caitlin, just to pick up on what you were suggesting around like being better for your next course. I'm very aware that a lot of teachers, yourselves included, really pivot over the past year in terms of delivering courses. I especially feel for educators that have courses that rely so heavily on, as my old lecturer used to say, "getting your hands into it" and developing your fine motor skills and getting to know that that tiny PT pipette intimately those lab hands, those bench skills. Yeah, you have to get your hands. So I'm wondering, you've shifted these courses, one that was in person, one that was online, that number nine in terms of sustainability for your courses moving forward, do you think this is something to keep up? And how do you aim to maybe do you have any plans for how you're going to help students develop their patterns of progress through their courses?
Caitlin [00:07:15] Yeah, definitely. And I think two points here. The first is that there have been a lot of well, it has been difficult to pivot to online delivery of courses. We've learned a lot of things that I think people will continue to implement along the way. I think there are certain things that we probably had fixed in our head that we could only do if they were a person, that we realized that actually the online format is pretty amenable to test administration. And there are a lot of advantages to using an online testing platform. And some of our faculty members are saying, I'm never going back to writing a paper exam.
SJ [00:07:50] That is so interesting. And it has been your experience of the exams that you feel that you could move online or do you would?
Caitlin [00:07:58] Yeah, I mean, I think just to speak, so obviously all of our curriculum at McMaster is being delivered online, the university has completely shifted to online delivery. And so all of our faculty have had to give online exams. And there are a lot of benefits to actually shifting the exam online, for example. Now, when I write a test and the students take it, I can get really in-depth statistical analysis about each question and whether students answered it correctly, what percentage answered it correctly. That helps me now refine that assessment and also my teaching methods. Was the fact that only 30 percent of students answering this question correctly because I didn't explain that material well? Was the question poorly worded? Or is this just a difficult concept and only my best students, my A+ students are answering that question correctly?
SJ [00:08:48] We all need good discriminating questions. And it's awesome that you get the analytics to really get the insight on that examination of that assessment. That's interesting.
Caitlin [00:08:58] Right. And so that's just a very, I think, long-winded explanation to say that actually, while there's been a lot of anxiety in courses online, we've actually learned that maybe some things are better in an online capacity and maybe some of the practices that we've had to adopt out of necessity will still be ones that we carry forward when we're actually allowed to be in person. To specifically answer your question about lab hands and developing those fine motor skills, this is something and I have discussed in developing some workshops or boot camps, as we like to say, at the beginning, when we can finally be in person. And hopefully that's in the fall of 2021, to actually bring students up to speed on these fine motor skills, on these actual physical, tactile features of the lab so that we can continue to help them grow and prepare them for upper level courses and theses experiences.
SJ [00:09:57] I love the idea of boot camp. We do have something similar at Newcastle, a skills test where students in their first year would have to demonstrate their ability to do four key things. I feel that, and I think it could be a really valuable way of condensing a lot of almost like doing a driving test, you can do lessons or you can do like a pass-in-one week kind of thing and sometimes needs must, right? And you have to condense your learning and you have to find a way to make the timetable work. And yes we want the best student experience, but it's got to fit the timetable. And a boot camp is a really or a workshop series of workshops is a really beautiful way of ensuring everybody does get those opportunities and get the experience.
Felicia [00:10:37] Yeah and to answer that like the last part of that question, the online labs have been working very well for us. We survey the students all the time to make sure that it's working for them. And what we do is we split up the students into small teams of about four to six students per team. So I have currently close to 70, two teams right now with all of my courses, probably a little bit more. And so what we do is we have them go into these little, closed subchannels, and we provide them with the lab worksheet that we've created ourselves and the lab worksheet takes them through the protocols. We made small videos for them so they can see the equipment and the processes that occur in our teaching labs. And so they're very tiny and we use a lot of interactive content. We use freeware software like H5P, I don't know if you're familiar with that.
SJ [00:11:28] No, but I'm loving hearing about your different tools that you're investigating and putting in practice.
Felicia [00:11:32] Yeah, there is Hypothesis web annotation we use for them to interact with one another, to add to annotate research papers, for example. So we've really taken to using a lot of these freeware resources and engaging the students in that way. And it's been lovely. So at the end of this, what we're going to do this summer is we're going to create all of these things that we've done online. We're going to create these online modules that the students can go through as a pre-lab for some of these courses. So that'll be and we'll post it as an open educational resource so other people can use it and adapt it any way they wish.
SJ [00:12:10] That's really such a good way to serve your community. That's that sounds great. And I guess that means the students can do it in their own time as well. You're freed a little bit from the constraints of traditional didactic teaching, which seems like a real positive experience for them. I wondered do you to tend to before students come to McMaster or do you make them do kind of pre-work before they enroll in the courses, or is it we start together at the beginning of the year?
Caitlin [00:12:34] Well, so our biochemistry program is actually a level two entry program. So when students apply to McMaster, they go into a general kind of catch-all, first-year life science curriculum and they take a broad range of courses in across math, physics, chemistry, biological sciences. And then we get them as second-year students. So they do have a kind of common foundational set of knowledge and skills. But really, when they enter into our second-year program, they have a full year lab course. And that really allows us to develop their skills and get them situated within the biochemistry department.
SJ [00:13:22] That's such a beautiful, constructive approach. Start easy, make it complex, specialize as you go. And on the theme of open education and open resources, I wondered if we could briefly touch just before we finish on your course, your DNA Decoded MOOC and all the wonderful things that are available on Coursera. Who enrolls in that? Who's it for?
Caitlin [00:13:42] Everybody? It's for everyone. And it's free. It doesn't cost anything to enroll. And you can do it at your leisure. You can do it in three days you can complete the course or you could do it in three weeks or three months.
SJ [00:13:55] What kind of things does it cover? Is it all about kind of what DNA is, how it works, what kind of things do you learn?
Caitlin [00:14:02] Exactly. So that course was designed to make DNA accessible to a lay audience. So we really take you, we start very basic and we do build in the complexity of the material. But it's meant for everyone, regardless of your background. So maybe I'll let Felicia jump in and tell you about the kind of progression of the four modules that we have in that particular online course.
Felicia [00:14:28] Before I do that, one of the things that I really love about the course is that we obviously worked with Labster and McPhearson Institute. McPhearson Institute was the one that actually did all the editing and all the storyboarding and everything, and we contributed a ton to the script. But one of the things that they did that I was so appreciative of is, I'm always like a broken record, but a good broken record saying, you know, you've got to establish that culture, that safe, nurturing, positive culture. And they listen to me. So our course is a little bit different than many of the courses on Coursera in that we actually have a dialog happening. So it's Caitlin and I doing the entire course and we have little skits at the beginning to bring you in. It's a little bit humorous because we are trying to just demystify DNA where and we're demystifying what DNA is at it's structural, at its base. We're demystifying transcription, translation and then we go and apply these concepts to demystify things like DNA testing protocols as well as other really cool like GMOs. We're trying to demystify these sort of concepts that some people have some real big, strong beliefs on, but don't always have the background to understand what's behind all of these concepts. And that was our main goal for DNA Decoded is just to give a little bit of context to some of these really popular topics.
Caitlin [00:15:57] Right. And certainly the concepts that have made their way into our basic lingo and even the popular press, right? People talk about personalized health testing, genetically modified organisms, manipulating DNA, CRISPR pass, all of those things. We read about them, we hear about them, but we might be a little fuzzy on what they actually are. And so the course is meant to speak to those things.
SJ [00:16:21] It seems like such a powerful tool to be able to spread education to the masses, to those that are willing and want to learn, it's so valuable.
Caitlin [00:16:29] So, yeah, and maybe I'll just chime in here and say so, first of all, that course launched, I believe in it was February 2018. And we have had over eighteen thousand people enroll in that course to date.
Felicia [00:16:46] Which is pretty good for a DNA course, I'm just putting it in there.
Caitlin [00:16:50] But we have seen a huge increase, a huge increase in enrollment since the pandemic started. So people when we get statistics every week saying the number of people that have enrolled from last week and the number of people that have completed the course and we've just seen huge spikes since the pandemic started. So people are certainly using all of this locked down time that they have had in a very productive and intellectual way.
SJ [00:17:18] That's fantastic. I'm actually quite looking forward to a sequel, hopefully, to DNA Decoded of Pandemics Decoded, and we can do a little bit of epidemiology in there too, why not?
Caitlin [00:17:27] Well, yeah, yeah. That's you know, like I said, I'm a virologist by training, so I'm all about all things SARS-COV-2.
SJ [00:17:37] Brilliant. We'll talk later. Awesome. So we're coming really close to the end of our time. I want to date, April, how has this been for you? Have you enjoyed listening to Felicia and Caitlin's wonderful explanations of how they're working?
April [00:17:52] I have to say, I have been sitting in absolutely rapt attention, you may have forgotten I was here, but I was here learning all the time everything that you had to say about teaching with new technology, but also your concern for the students is exactly what we hoped for with this podcast. And this has been so, so much fun.
Felicia [00:18:12] Along the lines of the student concern, I think a lot of emphasis has to be placed on their well-being and on their journey through whatever courses you teach. One of the things we also are well, I am a huge, I don't know, ambassador for his mental health. So that's the one of the things that I have a lot of conversations with my students on. And that's mental health, mainly because I suffer from mental health disorders. And one of the things I do is I'm very open with my students early on in the course about my struggles, and I open the door for them to come and reach out to me whenever possible if they have any concerns. And they come, they come a lot. So it's very important to me, I think, to make your course a full-on experience and treat your students with a ton of respect and help them to just enjoy that experience, but also be able to understand or be responsible for knowing when they're suffering or when they're struggling or when they're anxious and be able to support them or send them to proper services that are offered at every university so that it can help them through whatever they're going through.
Caitlin [00:19:25] And to just build on that, I think one of the big focuses that we've learned in the last semester and then we'll continue to apply into the next term, is that it's really important to, like you said, foster the sense of community and in the ongoing pandemic era, that probably is a little more important than some of the content that we might be teaching the students. So maybe dialing back a little on the content, but really upping our efforts to create a nurturing community, an environment where people can connect with each other. Right. Some people are in lockdown isolation and don't have any contact and giving them an opportunity to feel like there are still people out there that care and a safe space for them to learn.
April [00:20:13] What an amazing conversation this has been to close on that idea of connection, because I feel like this has been such a fantastic connection and to be honest, I am in lock down. And this has been an amazing way to not only connect with the three of you, but to really learn something that is outside of what I'm familiar with.
SJ [00:20:34] Absolutely, I mean here we are in various different places across the world and yet we're able to connect and talk about education and virtual learning and integrating new educational tools into didactic traditional methodologies. We would never have been able to do this, maybe even 20 years ago. So I love that we've kind of got to this place where we're able to do this and take that forward into the world where we interact with our students.
April [00:21:02] Wow, what an amazing episode this has been, from hearing how important it is to take risks in the classroom to the importance of fostering safe spaces for learning. I hope you enjoyed part two of our conversation with Felicia, Caitlin and SJ as much as I did. We'll be talking again soon. So until next time, keep learning, keep teaching and stay safe.
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