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Virtual lab experiment offers biology students opportunity of a lifetime

HT1September 29, 2020

Controlling a multi-million-dollar microscope from their living rooms, the students in Heather Townsend’s Introductory Microbiology course experienced the opportunity of a lifetime thanks to a unique connection between two schools more than 700 miles apart.

As a biology instructor, Townsend relies on a lot of hands-on teaching, lab experiments and face-to-face interactions to put her students in the best position to succeed in the classroom.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing college professors nationwide to adapt to remote teaching, the Community College of Rhode Island Associate Professor utilized social media to build new connections and deliver opportunities to her students that most likely would not have been available otherwise.

As part of the Fall 2020 curriculum for her Introductory Microbiology course, Townsend arranged a virtual lab experiment with the University of Toledo’s Scientists Changing Our Pre-college Education (SCOPE) program, which allowed her students to test out the benefits of a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment that offers more than 15 times the magnifying power of telescopes found at most colleges and universities.

Through the use of a special application, Townsend’s students could actually control the SEM from their own laptops or computers, using it to zoom in and analyze samples such as blood cells, diatoms, and E. Coli. The SEM is so powerful, Townsend said, it has been used in various studies to diagnose sickle cell anemia and other blood diseases.

“This was an opportunity we wouldn’t have had it not be for teaching and learning remotely,” she said. “The students loved it. Where else could you operate a million-dollar microscope from the comfort of your home?”

Toledo launched the SCOPE program 10 years ago as a way to bring sophisticated scientific instrumentation into area classrooms. Like other programs of its kind, COVID-19 guidelines forced SCOPE to develop more remote offerings, which, in turn, opened the door for colleges and universities such as CCRI to take advantage of this unique learning experience.

This cohort is just one of many ways Townsend has adapted her curriculum – and her philosophy on online learning – during the height of the pandemic. She had never taught an online course before COVID-19, so when the entire college transitioned to a remote platform, she took to social media to find new, interesting ways to keep her students engaged, and began attending multiple weekly webinars with other teachers to network and share ideas.

“I really wanted something interactive – something where they could go beyond watching videos or just looking at pictures,” Townsend said.

After joining a private Facebook group for biology professors, Townsend caught wind of the SCOPE program and immediately reached out to Toledo to get CCRI involved. The use of the SEM allowed her students to examine specimens closer than they’re accustomed to; for example, Townsend said, the virtual lab helped explain the differences in how pollen affects human allergies based on its unique surface features, which can only be viewed using the SEM. She has already scheduled a second SCOPE cohort for October for when her Organismal Biology class participates in a specified pollen lab.

“This new learning environment has opened the door to so many resources I never knew were available,” Townsend said.

Enamored with wide array of learning possibilities through social networking, Townsend included similar interactive sessions in her summer Organismal Biology course as well, including a live Zoom webinar in June with best-selling author and world-renowned paleontologist Neil Shubin, who is credited with the discovery of the 21st century Tiktaalik, a transitional species between fish and four-legged animals – or tetrapods – ultimately dubbed a “fishapod” by Shubin.

“This was truly the highlight of my career,” she said.

Townsend not only redesigned her course to highlight Shubin’s work, she also added several similar interactive remote learning webinars to her fall curriculum and plans to continue implementing them to various courses when CCRI returns to a full, in-person learning platform. Among the scheduled guests speaking to CCRI students this fall are Dr. Forrest Townsend, veterinary surgeon at the Bayside Hospital for Animals in Florida; Lonnie McCaskill, the head zookeeper at New York’s Prospect Park Zoo and the lead biologist working to save Siamese crocodiles; and Tonya Clauss, the head veterinarian at the Georgia Aquarium.

Townsend looks forward to the day she and her students can reunite in the classroom, but the she lessons learned teaching remotely, in addition to the connections to new people and places, have forever changed her approach for the better – a “silver lining,” as she puts it, amidst these unique times.

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