Multistream Science Education for Nontraditional Students - The Labster Podcast Episode 5
April SJ and I have the honor and pleasure of being joined by a remarkable educator, Dr. Jennifer C. Bobenko, professor of biochemistry and chairperson of the Institutional Review Board at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Jennifer has advocated for the incorporation of technology into course delivery since 2006, when she participated in the Maryland Course Redesign Initiative, a collaboration between the University System of Maryland and the National Center for Academic Transformation, where she also served as a fellow for academic transformation. Currently, Jennifer is working with the Kirwin Center for Academic Innovation at the University System of Maryland on a new concept to use online learning resources to expand the reach of higher education to potential science students and particularly to help nontraditional students pursue a degree in the sciences. Welcome to the podcast, Jennifer.
Jennifer Thank you for having me. I look forward to our discussion today.
April Excellent. And so do we.
SJ [00:04:36] So I remember when you came and you spoke to us as part of our SO:Inspired Conference at the end of 2020. It's October 2020. Is that right?
SJ [00:04:48] And you were talking about creating access for students. And I remember one of the takeaways being or one of your ideas being that we could have a completely virtual program for the first three years of a bachelor's program. And then the final year would be why you got the opportunity to get your hands into the instruments and and do all develop also your lab hands and get that practical skills up to scratch. And I wondered if that's something that you still feel strongly about or if you have had any opportunity to move towards any of those ideas recently.
Jennifer [00:05:24] So I was fortunate in that I had most of the month of December off because of rescheduling of our semester, so I've spent some time thinking about how we as educators could access nontraditional students. And what I mean by that is how can we get to the nontraditional student and provide them a mechanism that would allow them to earn college credits or a degree in the sciences in ways that we have not offered them before. And many of the thoughts that I've had even in preparing for the SO:inspired Conference, have been driven by the pandemic situation. And so while in October, I was very interested in three years of fully online work and then bringing students to campus, perhaps for a year of intense Hands-On work in the lab. I've had more time to mull over these ideas. And I think that even asking for one year's time from a nontraditional student is not practical. And so, you know, I've I've tried to put a nontraditional student's shoes on when I've been thinking about how to reimagine the future of higher education.
Jennifer [00:08:10] So what I would like is for higher education to be reimagined so that we can provide a mechanism to allow nontraditional students to earn college credits or a degree in an unconventional way in the sciences, so we have, as science educators, steered away from unconventional ways of earning credits and degrees and traditional college routes to science degrees are highly structured, and they require consistent on-campus presence because of the laboratories associated with the science courses. And it's my perception that this prevents many nontraditional students from entering the sciences or completing degrees in the sciences, or even enrolling in a cluster of courses to earn a specialization for a raise or promotion.
April [00:09:24] Jennifer, I'd love to hear you kind of just describe or define who who are the nontraditional students that you're thinking of.
Jennifer [00:09:32] Sure. So when I'm thinking about nontraditional students, I would think about students who or people who are working individuals. They perhaps work full time or part-time. They have a family. They have a highly structured schedule so that a traditional four-year college education in the sciences, which requires being on campus, would not be accessible. I could also see non matriculated students benefit from this, from this idea. I could also see employees that are working in the health care or biotech sector that have a high school degree and want to pursue a B.S. or even a cluster of courses to earn a promotion. I could see this being beneficial to them.
SJ [00:10:46] So you could see this almost as being like an approach to lifelong learning as opposed to a traditional get your degree at the beginning of your career.
SJ [00:11:02] In the UK, there seems to be, especially in the UK anyway, a bit of a shift towards this idea of lifelong learning and earning your master's degrees or advanced degrees a little bit later.
SJ 11:55 But I would love to see access for people who maybe have childcare commitments that don't fit into the traditional. This is your laboratory timetable. You need to be here for these lectures. We've got practicals Tuesday and Friday until five every week. All right. I could I could really see a huge benefit for that. And I would hope that virtual labs could could support that.
SJ My question, I guess, is reflecting on the students of my own that have gone through a bachelor's program. And I've kind of supported them either in a pastoral or from the perspective of the educator, that that physical experience of developing those those physical hand skills, stuff that your hands have got to learn, not your brain is so important as a or it can be incredibly important in terms of a consolidation activity. And I wonder, do you see or do you anticipate that things like virtual labs could still deliver that that consolidation phase? Or do you think the whole the process of learning is just different when we're thinking about virtual education?
Jennifer [00:13:15] So I think that the pandemic has pushed us to use educational technologies such as Labster that were previously underutilized in course delivery and so faculty, we've been exposed to technologies and we're finding it can make a big difference in terms of access, affordability and achievement. And I think we can use Labster as a cost-effective supplement or even an alternative to the traditional wet bench laboratory experience.
Jennifer [00:14:03] So what I, I do see is that, or what I think would be helpful is the inclusion of more gaming features that could be provided by Labster, such as a controller, that's a pipetter because pipetting is one of those skills that does require practice. And so with a pipetter, you could learn to pipette the very small volumes. You could learn how to load a gel.
Jennifer [00:14:39] But until the time where we're able to develop the the motor skills aspect of virtual learning, then I do think that we would still have to have some type of, some type of scheduled meeting with with these nontraditional students that we could bring them into a laboratory setting in a bootcamp style and have them master the motor skills, but I think this is where industry would play a big part of this vision because, we're targeting or I would target nontraditional students for multi-stream education and these nontraditional students are working individuals, and so if they're working in industry, in in biotechnology, they have many of the lab skills that we're looking for in undergraduate work.
SJ [00:16:02] So some of the traditional students that you're thinking about might already be engaged in manual activities? Where they must have like a transferable motor skill, would you say?
Jennifer [00:16:15] So I think the idea of badging would be critical to the success of this. So that we could provide badging for on the job experience, which would translate into wet lab credits.
SJ [00:16:36] When you say badging, do you mean or would you see that almost as an assessment of the students existing skills? Or would it be almost like a skills test that a student might perform in order to gain a badge? What does that mean to you?
Jennifer [00:16:55] I think it would be a combination of both so we could engage industry, so engage the nontraditional student's employer to determine what their general role is at work, and then they could help us determine if badging would be appropriate, and then the student would fulfill some type of assessment to earn the badge.
SJ [00:17:29] I understand the badge.
Jennifer [00:17:32] I'm sorry, excuse.
SJ [00:17:33] No, no, please, I was just one of my mind’s whirring this.
Jennifer [00:17:40] So the badge would be awarded for a particular skill, not only for that skill, but for the knowledge, the theoretical knowledge that accompanies that skill.
SJ [00:17:57] OK, so I guess when I was thinking about traditional and nontraditional students sorry, and I was thinking about people who might not necessarily be engaged in scientific work or might not be engaged in manual work, examples being maybe people who've taken time out of education or time out of work to to raise raising children or currently aren't working or unemployed. And so it's really interesting to hear you mention those people that might be in. It's that idea of lifelong learning again. They might already be engaged in an industry that is technical and then access to education allows them to develop further within that role or further within the company or diversify their skill set for promotion or and transference within sight of a particular company. That's super interesting. And and it also makes me think that this is something that virtual learning could do to validate the existing skills and training. That an individual has had either in the workplace or elsewhere. It's something that the virtual learning could do, that.
- And I could see I could see educators looking at it and say absolutely not. My experience of being in the lab is paramount. I want to know that you've been taught right and that you're performing this stuff correctly, reproducibly day in, day out. And so I suppose how would you respond to an educator that's coming from that perspective that they do you think it's a control thing, that they want to have control over the validation process to accredit a particular learners progress? Or do you think that this approach could be as good? In training a student in a technical subject that a traditional in-person teaching experience could.
Jennifer [00:21:06] I think that resistance is expected. And that's because of what we know. We know the traditional science education consists of what is typically thought of as being four years, although now we're pushing to five or six years and it's an on campus experience with laboratories of three plus hours per class. And this is how most of us have been groomed to think. It doesn't mean it's the only way. It just means that that's what we know. I do think that we should consider how valuable virtual laboratory simulation providers like Labster are, so we're finding that these online labs offer a meaningful supplement or even replacement to the laboratory experience because they put the experiment into real-world context through the simulation.
SJ [00:22:45] That's the storyline that's doing that. Or do you feel it's it's just the nature of the 3D immersive nature of the simulation are there particular aspects you feel that are important?
Jennifer [00:23:01] I think it's a combination of both, actually, because the Labster provides you with the the hypothetical situation that you're about to walk into. And then through the simulation, the student develops an understanding of the sequence of events that they will have to go through to be successful in the wet lab. Yet there aren't the pressures of a time constraint or a lab instructor watching them. So, they can do this, these virtual simulations as many times as they want and practice and become very familiar with the steps that they need to complete before actually walking into the wet lab.
SJ I know there's courses that are distance learning where they have almost on-campus holidays. So you would go for two weeks and you do your practical skill development when you go on campus for two weeks. But that's once a term, so once per semester, you would go and get your practical teaching in that back two weeks that you take out. And I wonder if that's an approach that might work in this scenario having a kind of a residential component that students could engage with and whether that would still be too much pressure to play some, as you say, a nontraditional learner.
Jennifer [00:26:43] So what I what I've thought about is the idea that at the traditional university we have a lecture and a lab that run concurrently and in the sciences, often times our courses are two-semester courses, so Principles of Chemistry I and Principles of Chemistry II. I think what could be optimal for the students is to have them take their Principles I and II courses and complete Labster as they go through the online theory courses and then do a boot camp stint on campus that we will call, for example, the Principles of Chemistry Lab module, which would include the skills from Principles of Chemistry I Lab and Principles of Chemistry II Lab. And I think that this would pare down the amount of time we expected students to spend on the campus because, again, if we go back to the traditional format of science education, you take Principles of Chemistry I in the first semester, Principles of Chemistry II in the second semester, and you can't progress to Principles of Chemistry II until you've completed lecture and lab of I. So I would like to see more of a module based laboratory experience on the campus or at a facility that's convenient, again, partnership with industry would be fantastic for offering these lab modules.
Jennifer [00:28:59] I think we could do this in a reasonable amount of time and not expect a working person to utilize their entire vacation allotment for the year.
April [00:29:13] That's very that's a very empathetic, I think, from an education and educators point of view, from the point of view of a university to be thinking about the nontraditional student who may have a family, who may have other plans for their vacation allotment, they may have to take time off with their children.
Jennifer [00:29:35] And I will say, though, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore is situated in rural Somerset County in Maryland. And so we have the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, lots of historical sites to visit. And so we could we offer much to do for families if they were to bring their family.
April [00:30:04] What a great idea.
SJ [00:30:07] This is your training holiday. Yes. I'm not laughing because I think it's silly. I'm laughing because I could see it happening and I'm just imagining it, too.
SJ [00:31:07] But I could see a holistic approach to integrating or considering a person's family life alongside their education and creating space for it. Not everybody's going to want to have that experience, but creating space for it to be able to happen feels useful. It feels like something that could be supportive, especially if, you know, it's a make or break thing. People who are returning back to education, perhaps a little older with families or already having a job, they've made an active choice to take time out of their lives, to come and study. And they've committed to it and to feel like they can't continue with a study or even to actually go through the attrition process and drop out of uni haven't made that choice to me feels entirely heartbreaking. So if there was the opportunity to use something like a technical holiday or a period of time, that was a boot camp to allow somebody to have a bite-sized chunk of technical training to complement the degree or to complement the studies, feels like a really positive way forward or a sustainable way forward for that type of education.
Jennifer [00:32:31] I also think the boot camp idea would help the learner, or give the learner an opportunity to feel like they're part of a campus, even though they don't spend the majority of their learning hours there. So that when they earned that degree, they feel as though they've actually been a part of that campus and I think that's important as well.
SJ [00:33:00] Absolutely. And the networking opportunities that come with such things are valuable to as your career progresses or as your life changes and those relationships can be incredibly valuable personally and professionally. So I think it's important at times made for them.
SJ [00:33:19] Lots to think about there.
April [00:33:43] Let me kind of just jump in here with a question that I think would help us to set the stage a little bit, and that is to know where you are your commitment to expanding the reach of higher education to nontraditional students comes from.
Can you tell us a little bit about your motivation and how you came to be thinking about this topic and and a little bit more about that?
Jennifer [00:34:13] Absolutely so.
Jennifer [00:35:21] So, you know I think my interest in nontraditional students stems from a few different areas, one is that serving as a professor at an HBCU. I see many first generation college students and I wonder what their life would be like if they weren't a first generation college student, meaning what if their parents had had access to education? What if their parents had had access to education that was affordable and amenable to what they were doing? You know, at that stage in their life? I'm also interested in nontraditional students because I see that it could be a great way to diversify the degree earners and a great way to diversify the science workforce.
SJ [00:36:50] You know, you've got to start you've got to start at the beginning with that and bring a well-skilled group of people together and to go into the workforce together. Yes, I get you this that needs to be started at the training level, not later.
Jennifer [00:37:11] And I think that this would really open the door to increasing the the diversity of degree attainers and therefore the diversity of our science workforce.
April [00:37:25] That is beautifully said. So when you are thinking about how you're transforming science, what is the what is the future state that you would like to see if you envision, you know, commencement at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, five years in the future, how will it be different then than it might have been at the last commencement?
Jennifer [00:37:59] That's a really tough question.
Jennifer [00:38:12] I would hope to see more students that are graduating in a timely manner in the sciences and going on to further their education, whether, that be in graduate or professional schools. I would like to see them well prepared for the next step of education.
SJ [00:38:46] When you say timely, what does that mean to you?
Jennifer [00:38:53] I would like to see students, one graduate. I would like to see them graduate within four or five years. Six years seems like quite a while.
SJ [00:39:10] It is when you've got other stuff going on, absolutely is. I wonder if sometimes it's necessary for it to take that long, if you commit only as much time as you can to gaining credit that it takes that long to complete the necessary modules. But. Is that because of something beyond your control, like timetabling, or is it because you generally can't commit any more time to the studies would the flexibility of virtual learning mean that more could be done with the time that's available because it could fit around life more easily. Do you feel that's where the impact might be for graduating in with a more convenient timeline for taking their education forward?
Jennifer [00:40:10] So I, I think that with the traditional college student, a lot of it is a lot of the time delay could be due to the highly structured nature of science programs. And I do think that if we move toward using MOOC providers and providing less structured science online, then we could see a decrease in the time to graduation.
SJ [00:40:55] I would be really interested to see. To see that work, I mean, we know, especially with the early data that that's been generated around MOOCs that MOOCs have a tendency to have a very high attrition rate. So very high recruitment, but quite relatively relatively high attrition also. So I wonder if the if they became more normalized or if it was something that was seen as a valuable experience and not just something that you did on the side for your personal interest, a genuine, valuable educational experience that is commensurate with the traditional approach and seemed to be as valuable to a person's personal development as a traditional approach, would those attrition rates drop and would put more people complete and complete well, not just not just scrape by, but, like, genuinely engage with the course and produce quality work as a result of taking that course.
Jennifer [00:42:02] I absolutely think they would. So, at this time, for many of those who enroll in MOOCs, it's simply out of interest. Sure. And. If you're doing something out of interest, you'll do it at your own pace when you have time, if you have a free moment. Whereas if you are enrolled in a degree-granting program or a credit-granting program, and you have 12 weeks to finish a course for those credits and there is some financial obligation, then I think you would be more likely to complete what you've started.
April [01:00:07] Jennifer, it has been an honor and a pleasure to have this time talking with you about your ideas and your commitment to nontraditional students and furthering their achievement in science education.
Jennifer [01:00:25] Well, thank you for having me. I have learned so much from both of you and you have given me many ideas that I can incorporate into what will hopefully one day be known as multi-stream education.
SJ [01:00:56] Jennifer, it's been so interesting talking with you and sharing this time. And your perspective from the US as well has really opened my eyes to how the differences internationally can really impact a student's entry into traditional higher education. And I really hope that in the future, sometime, we can really create access for everybody.
April [01:01:24] That's beautiful. All right, until next time everyone keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.