When the new semester began and classes continued through a mix of in-person and online platforms, concerns rose about how to achieve the high standard of a UBC education. Teaching in a pandemic has many new rules to consider, but our 3rd-year microbiology lab course (MICB 322 – Molecular Microbiology Laboratory) paved the way for success.
Taught by Jennifer Sibley, MICB 322 teaches students to work safely with microorganisms and lay the technical foundation for their careers. By introducing students to basic skills such as lab safety, appropriate bench setup and working posture, scientific record keeping, aseptic technique, dilutions and basic laboratory calculations; the class also prepares students to work as co-op students in health care, research labs, and local biotech companies.
By the end of the course, students should be able to demonstrate competency in laboratory safety and aseptic technique and demonstrate familiarity with a wide variety of microbiological and molecular laboratory techniques.
Since some of the core laboratory skills require developmental manual dexterity that cannot be replaced in an online environment, the learning objectives were analyzed and separated into lists of what could be taught online and ones that could only be successfully delivered in-person. This made sure that the goals of the course could still be achieved with the new limitations and safety precautions in place, allowing students to feel safe and comfortable in their learning environment.
Connor Keane, a current student in the lab, says he feels lucky to have this opportunity to put his understanding of experimental theory into action. Even with the occasional fogginess that he jokes may come with the face mask plus face shield combination.
“I do not see COVID restrictions as a barrier to my learning in the lab, but as a tool that allows this opportunity to exist,” says Keane.
He also shared the commitment his classmates have demonstrated not only in their preparation for each laboratory session, but in their diligent work in following the COVID restrictions. With the small and distanced laboratory sessions, collaboration and shared insights are not only possible but essential.
In a survey taken by MISA (Microbiology and Immunology Student Association), students shared that they enjoyed the class and its ability to let them have real-life interactions with their peers, take much needed breaks from computer screens, create good working habits, and give them a sense of normalcy in an otherwise very abnormal year.
Preparing for the virtual semester
When preparing for the new semester, Sibley shares that the main difference in the syllabus was not the content itself, but the way it was delivered. While the practical demonstrations of learning continued in-person in the labs in small groups (two groups of 8 compared to the pre-COVID days of 28 students in one space), the theoretical side of learning moved online.
Labs ran five days per week for six weeks, which required a much larger instructional team – consisting of three instructors (Jennifer Sibley, Marcia Graves, Evelyn Sun), five TAs, and the full attention of the technical support staff. This instructional team met weekly on Zoom to ensure the labs ran safely and smoothly, clearly documenting each lab session in full detail to ensure everyone understood the weekly tasks and goals.
These tasks included the reconfiguration of lab spaces to meet COVID-19 safety protocols – such as one-way traffic, specific entry and exit protocols, and assigned student work stations to maintain physical distancing. The technical support staff also took on the very large and important role of daily setup and cleaning of the lab spaces.
“There were definitely a lot of moving parts – resources, people and schedules – that had to come together for each weekly session,” shares Sibley of the planning that also took into account a schedule that allowed for flexibility of students and the instructional team (in case they had to miss work due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances).
“I can honestly say that the course would not have been successful without the enthusiastic and respectful collaboration of everyone involved.”
Training the next generation of microbiologists
The COVID safety precautions taken in the MICB 322 lab have allowed students to safely familiarize themselves with the important tools they will need for a future career.
The MISA survey stated that students found the skills and techniques learned were applicable to preparing for next steps (whether that be co-op job applications or a future career in life sciences research), as well as how to work under pressure, work with steady hands, and interact more closely with fellow peers and professors.
The self-discipline and commitment required from students during this new way of learning at UBC has been both a challenge and a blessing for those who have taken part in the course.
“MICB 322 has been an excellent opportunity to develop a foundation and understanding of the various experimental techniques and methodology behind the study of bacteria,” says Keane.
“Working efficiently, accurately, and cooperatively in a microbiology lab setting are competencies that will help me with not only my future educational goals but my career as well.”
Students from the in-person experimental module MICB 322 have transitioned to MICB 323 “Molecular Immunology & Virology Laboratory” for the new term, where they will continue their experience in the lab as it prepares them for their next steps and future careers in science.