Microbiology Lab’s Clarity, Focus Get Boost Online

Faculty Senate President Dorothea Herreiner talks to Cheryl Hertz, visiting assistant professor of biology, about the transition to teaching in an online environment. Visiting Assistant Professor Hertz has taught at LMU since 2004. She primarily teaches courses in immunology, general microbiology, and medical microbiology. In recent years, she has been an instructor for the introductory biology laboratory courses, as well as courses in infectious diseases that she has developed for majors and non-majors.

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Cheryl Hertz, Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology

Dorothea Herreiner: What is this course about and what are your instructional goals?
Cheryl Hertz: This course, “Medical Microbiology Laboratory” [Biol 217] teaches basic microbiology lab skills, including sterile technique, microscopy, and how to culture and characterize bacteria, particularly those important to human health. By the end of the course, students should know how to safely handle microbiological specimens, be skilled in performing some basic techniques, and be familiar with a number of specific groups of bacteria.

DH: What are important disciplinary-specific aspects of this course?
CH: This course is designed for students in the Health and Human Sciences major, many of whom are aspiring to become physician assistants, physical therapists, and occupational therapists. “Medical Microbiology Lab” is important in teaching students hands-on skills that will transfer to their future careers in patient care, in particular knowing how to handle sterile materials so they do not get contaminated. I also try to give them a sense of what goes on behind the scenes after they deliver a patient’s specimen, so they understand the requirements and limitations of the clinical microbiology laboratory. Finally, since many of the students will be working in primary care settings, I want them to understand how a variety of tests for common infectious diseases work and are performed.

DH: What are some main lessons you learned this past spring, summer, or before about teaching online?
CH: Fortunately, several years ago, support from the Center for Teaching Excellence and Seaver College enabled me to attend the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE). So, when classes moved online in the middle of the spring semester, I was acquainted with a community of fellow microbiology educators who I could turn to for invaluable ideas and support through a number of informal channels.

Members of this group freely shared ideas and resources that helped me carry out most of the remaining lab activities that I had planned. This sharing of resources continued throughout the summer and during ASMCUE 2020, which was held virtually for the first time ever. One idea that stuck with me was to send students lab materials that would allow them to set up their own lab at home. So, for the fall semester, I created kits for each student in the course. Though safety issues preclude the culture of microorganisms at home, students were sent a number of items including petri dishes filled with actual agar, disposable inoculating loops, test tubes, and microscope slides so they can practice aseptic technique, streak plating, and specimen preparation; it turns out that mustard is a great stand-in for bacteria, so kits included a small packet.

I included photos of lab equipment like Bunsen burners, test tube racks, a water wash bottle, and Gram staining reagents; by attaching these photos to items they can find around the house, students  can handle the reagents and demonstrate their ability to perform some of those basic lab techniques. With these kits, even online can be hands-on! Also, there are a number of excellent Open Educational Resources that simulate common microbiology skills, including a compound microscope that allows students to operate all of the parts of the microscope that are necessary to view bacteria. Overall, by combining all of these resources and ideas, students taking the lab online can still have many of the most important experiences provided by a typical in-person lab.

DH: What are some main differences between teaching this course in person and teaching it online/remotely?
CH: Teaching a lab course online is obviously very different than in-person. Since students aren’t in lab, they cannot set their hair on fire or spill purple stain on their clothes, and they are spared some of the unpleasant smells that are common in any microbiology lab. Instead, I am the one in the lab, setting up the experiments, inoculating various media, and photographing it all; for me it is fun for a change of pace. Now when we work on a laboratory exercise, we are all usually making the same observations and students see a variety of possibilities instead of just a single outcome. We also have more time to discuss those observations as a class, and there is more uniformity of instruction.

DH: What are some new elements that you introduced into the course in the online environment?
CH: New this semester, and with the online environment, are instructional videos and interactive simulations. In previous iterations of the course, I would demonstrate various techniques to students in the lab, but now I am recording instructional videos that walk through each step of key techniques. These videos allow every student to have a front-row seat, and with their home lab kits they can practice the techniques with me as many times as needed for mastery. Also new are the use of online simulations. There are many resources online that have been developed by microbiology educators at other institutions, and since these are freely available it is easy for students to practice lab techniques with these simulations. When the course returns to in-person instruction, these videos and simulations can be used by students to learn techniques before performing them in the lab.

Fungal plate 1 300x300 - Microbiology Lab’s Clarity, Focus Get Boost Online
Fungi that were collected on a plate of Sabouraud’s agar during a 30-minute exposure on the first floor patio of the Featherstone Life Sciences Building. The unmagnified (1X) image was captured with a Pixel phone.

DH: During this semester, what has excited you most about teaching this course?
CH: Even in the best of times, things go wrong in the lab: bacteria don’t grow, or strange things do, a slight error in a recipe means that some reagent doesn’t work, etc. With an online lab, things can always work the first time, students don’t have to wait for their bacteria to grow, saving time and repetition. As a result, I have time to introduce some new exercises that are particularly relevant and interesting to students, like several new lab activities on the diagnosis of viral infections.

DH: What new opportunities does this teaching environment provide?
CH: I think that being online has increased the clarity and focus of instruction. When in person, students have to be working on several different lab activities on any given day because they need to wait until the next class period for the bacteria to grow. In the online course, we can take a cooking-show approach and go from start to finish in a single lab period (or two). I think students will benefit from this more linear approach by being able to focus on one task/concept at a time. Also, it has forced all educators to think carefully about what we really want students to take away from our lab courses and a redesign for the online environment is a natural time to rethink the traditional ways we have approached a course.

DH: What would you like to suggest to your students?
CH: Students should keep an open mind and understand that online courses aren’t lesser than in-person courses, just different. And, being online can reveal opportunities that were not apparent before. As we say in biology: “adversity drives evolution.” The challenge of delivering a traditional lab course online can certainly have some benefits for the student!