Online by Design: Season 1.4

Episode 4: BIO 105 Course

How do you teach science courses and labs online? Two members of UNCG’s Biology faculty, Dr. Malcolm Schug and Heather Rushforth, discuss how their online students learn and what makes them successful.
Photo of Dr. Malcolm Schug

Guest Speaker: Dr. Malcolm Schug

“The feedback I get from students is that they really, really enjoy the course. And so for me as a professor, of course, I’m really proud that I can deliver more content. You can learn more biology online than I could ever, ever give you face-to-face. But you don’t really know that you’re learning so much content because you're having so much fun doing it.”

Photo of Heather Rushforth

Guest Speaker: Heather Rushforth

“In the labs, we design them specifically so you're participating and you're learning. You will achieve. You will succeed at a high level. The lowest scores I see are from students who are just not participating.”

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Sidney Fletcher: Welcome to Online By Design. I'm Sid Fletcher. 

Susie Boles: And I'm Susie Boles. Dance, music, science labs. Today's question is how do you teach that online. How do you teach online courses that involve the arts and developing hands-on skills? Sid and I decided to investigate and speak with a couple of UNC Greensboro professors to find out. Today's episode features Heather Rushworth and Malcolm Schug speaking about their fully online biology lecture and lab courses. 

Fletcher: Malcolm Schug has taught biology at UNC Greensboro for 20 years. He teaches genetics, evolution, molecular population genetics, and major concepts in biology for non-biology majors. He came to UNC Greensboro after working at Cornell and does research in ecology, evolution, and genetics. He is currently the department head of biology at UNC Greensboro. 

Boles: Heather Rushforth earned her master's here at UNC Greensboro in 2006. And she has been teaching a variety of biology courses for the past 14 years. She has taught biology for majors and non-majors and several labs, including ecology, plant systematics, plant diversity, human anatomy, and human physiology. Heather assisted in the creation of the BIO 105 lecture online and is currently the BIO 105 lab coordinator for both the in-person and online sections. 

Fletcher: Welcome to the show, Heather and Malcolm. 

Heather Rushforth: Thanks for having us. 

Malcolm Schug: Thanks for having us. 

Boles: So Malcolm, what motivated you to develop this online course?

Schug: So this happened I guess about the time Heather started working here after she graduated. One of the thing-- 

Rushforth: About 10 years ago. 

Schug: Yeah. One of the senior level professors came to me and said, hey, UNCG is really interested in developing this online non-majors biology course. And it's not for me. Would you be interested? And I was a naysayer. I didn't think you could teach a course online. But I thought there's no better way for me to find out if that's true than to actually try it. And so I did. And I hooked up with UNCG Online. And that's how the whole thing began is me stepping into something that I really didn't believe too much in. 

Schug: And yeah. So when I went to UNCG Online, they had this whole team of people interested in developing the course to help us. So there was like a curriculum specialist. And there were even like people that did graphic design and marketing and course development. And it was very creative environment and a lot of brainstorming. And it was really clear to me that teaching online could be a really creative and fun process for both the developers and the students. 

Fletcher: Malcolm, thanks for sharing. I love how you were actually a believer, that you wanted to try it out yourself before showing it to others. And if I may also ask, Malcolm, how does this course help students with transferable skills after graduation even if they don't decide to become biologists? 

Schug: So this course is really interesting because it takes you through a broad swath of what it means to be a biologist. And we really focus on how biologists work and how they see the world. And it is a life science. And because you're non-majors, we really focus on things that touch your life every day. So that's the cool thing. And the course is centered around like you're exploring this island and you're solving all these problems. But you're also learning content about things like why do we have back pain, and why are the birds disappearing, and things like that. And even in the end it's are zombies real. So we're asking all these really fun questions and things that are interesting. But we're also helping you understand things that will last you a lifetime. 

Rushforth: So one of the additional things that you will learn in the lab in particular is how to understand science and scientists when you hear them talk and present information like in the news. So they have their own vocabulary, and way of speaking, and terminology. And so to understand what your doctor is saying to you or something you've heard or read-- we help you understand that, how scientists talk and work. 

Boles: So students are increasing their ability to understand the scientific lingo they may hear in the world around them and to become observers of the world around them with these interesting questions. How do they do that? Heather, how is this course structured and what are the differences between the online and the face-to-face versions? 

Rushforth: So the lecture online is completely asynchronous. You can work through the material at your own pace. We have a learning area that you go to and read. You also are enhanced with additional textbooks that you can look at to follow up material if you need more information. And then you're assessed-- quizzes, tests, that sort of assessments. 

Rushforth: Once you've gone through all that, you get your grade. The interaction with the instructor is through announcements. They may present videos here or there. But really it is completely on your own. 

Rushforth: If you're doing lab online, that is much more interactive in a small group setting. You're going to be meeting online in small Zooms or in Google Meet with your instructor and working through group projects and group experiments at home. So it matches in class activities you would do. You'd be in a group at a table with four people and your instructor working through experiments. So the online and in class for lab very closely matches. 

Fletcher: Heather, that's interesting that you're noting about the structure of the online course. And you're saying that a large responsibility falls into the student. How do you help students succeed in the beginning of the course? What methods or strategies are implemented to foster student success? 

Rushforth: So particularly in the lab, we meet very early on with the students directly face to face through Zoom again or through other interactive documents like Google Docs and things like that where we get them to join a group, meet with us. We chat about the technology you're going to use. We have introductory videos that we start everybody off with to get them used to the online environment and the way that we're going to move through the course. 

Boles: It sounds like you've really thought about helping students become oriented to the course, and its technologies, and its materials right at the start so they can be successful. And now I'm curious about what a typical week in the course looks like. 

Rushforth: So the lab is broken up into basically three week chunks. The first week, you read the pre-lab material, you take your pre-lab quiz, and you meet with your instructor to learn exactly what the lab is going to be about. And they give you a brief background on why you're learning this material and what sort of experiment you're going to be doing. 

Rushforth: During the second week, your lab team, your little group of four or five students, will decide what type of experiment they want to do. We give you a lot of guidance as to the structure of the experiment. But you get to pick various things, different variables depending on what's around you in your home, or in your dorm, or in your neighborhood. 

Rushforth: What do you have available to you? And so as a team, you may decide to do a different experiment than another team in the same section. And your instructor helps guide you as to how to do that experiment and collect the data. And then during the third week, you will put together a report together with those other students in your team. You work on a Google Doc together and turn in one big group report. 

Rushforth: Group work is a little bit scary for a lot of students. They're worried that they'll do the work and other people will get the credit. And we've been very careful to split the points so that the group work, yes, there's one score for content. But because of Google Docs, we can see who's typing, who's editing, how much time you spend on the paper. 

Rushforth: We ask everybody to take a picture of the data they've collected in their own home so that we can see that everybody's participated. And there's a separate score that's equal and sometimes worth more than the group score. And so we do get various grades even within the same group depending on everybody's participation. 

Fletcher: We'll take a quick break and then return to our conversation on how do you teach that online. 

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Fletcher: Welcome back to our conversation with Malcolm Schug and Heather Rushworth. 

Boles: Heather, can you tell us more about how the students do a biology lab from their own home without having a physical lab? 

Rushforth: Yes. We've made very sure that all the labs that we do are easily done with materials that you can find in your home or at the local grocery store. These are all things that are kitchen labs that is easily accessible and doable within usually only a couple of hours. So they're very short as well. 

Rushforth: Let me give you an example. One of the labs that we do involves yeast. And so yeast is easily purchased at the grocery store. You also need some beverage bottles, like glass bottles, narrow necks, and a balloon, and some sugars. So everything is available at the local grocery store. We give you the details of the experiment. You can conduct it in your own home. And then you collect the data. And you submit it with all of your teammates into one big paper. 

Fletcher: Malcolm, redirecting the questioning a little bit more personally, what do you enjoy about teaching this course? 

Schug: I really enjoy working with the students online because they really have fun with the course. I think the asynchronous nature of it allows them to take it whenever they want, and because we were so careful to make it applicable to the real life and fun, that they tend to get to learn a lot of content. 

Schug: But at the same time, the feedback I get from students is that they really, really enjoy the course. And so for me as a professor, of course, I'm really proud that I can deliver more content. You can learn more biology online than I could ever, ever give you face to face. But you don't really know that you're learning so much content because you're having so much fun doing it. 

Fletcher: I appreciate that response, Malcolm. And so looking at it from the opposite end, what do students enjoy the most about taking your course? 

Schug: So what I find is that most of the students that take Biology For Non-majors don't really want to be in this course. They're taking it because it's a requirement. And what they find though in this course is that biology affects almost every aspect of their life. And they really enjoy learning about how it does that and also that it's really fun to learn that. 

Schug: And so one of the best things I think about this course is that students come in kind of grumpy about it and then they leave like that was really cool. And as a professor, I'm able to deliver an enormous amount of content to you guys. And you don't know it because you are really having a good time learning it. 

Boles: I'd love to also hear more about how any student can take this course and succeed regardless of their situation of their familiarity with biology. I wondered if you could speak briefly, Heather, to how you have ensured that students of all backgrounds can enjoy and learn from this course. 

Rushforth: Our course is designed for those who are not biology majors. So we don't assume that you're going to come in with an extensive amount of biology knowledge. We give you everything that you need to succeed within the course. And the lecture and the lab are independent of one another. So if you have covered some material in lab-- if you need to cover new material in lab, we give you that material. 

Rushforth: For instance, photosynthesis. You may get to it in a lab but not have had it in lecture or you're taking a lab later than you took the lecture and have forgotten it a little bit. We give you that material and everything you need to complete the lab that you need to finish for your grade. We strive to not leave any student behind or in the lurch on the knowledge base. 

Fletcher: Malcolm, is there anything possible in this course that isn't possible face to face? 

Schug: Yes. So one of the nice things about the lecture section of the course is that you can take it anytime you want. And you can take it at your own speed. Because it's asynchronous, I have students that generally log on in the middle of the night and then take the course. Keep up with their assignments. 

Fletcher: Can you think of a specific instance where having such flexibility in an online course has generated success for a student? 

Schug: I've had students that have finished the lecture section of the course in a matter of six weeks so that they could-- so that they could go out of the country, or some of them are in the armed services and need to go out in the field. So there's really a lot of flexibility built in in that way. 

Rushforth: This semester, we do have a student in Australia and a student in Afghanistan in the lab. 

Boles: What advice do you have for students who are new to online courses? 

Rushforth: My advice-- and I try to send out as many announcements as I can to remind students of when assignments are due. But they really need to be paying attention to when things are due. If at the beginning of the semester you lay out all your due dates on your calendar for the entire semester, not just the first couple of weeks, but everything, the final, the third exam, the fourth exam, put it down the deadline because the deadlines are very important. 

Rushforth: We do stick to those as close as we can just like you would if you were in class taking a test physically. We have to use that same dynamic online. There's a set amount of 24 hours you can take the test. If you cannot take it during those 24 hours, you need to communicate with us about what's going on. So it's easier if you just get it done. 

Rushforth: And typically, you have lots of time ahead of that to do it. Our quizzes tend to be open for weeks. And I can't tell you how many students I get after the deadline has passed, oh, I forgot about it. So yeah. Prioritizing, scheduling, making sure that you set aside blocks of time for your online work just like you would do if you were in class. 

Fletcher: Heather, how important are the connections between you and the students and each other? 

Rushforth: Super important. I think that that's one of the biggest things that I try to address with the students at the beginning of my classes every semester. Whether it's online or in class, communication is key. If you're going through any issues or if you're coming up against struggles, and even if you think it won't interfere with class work, if I know what's happening, then I can help you or I can extend grace towards you. 

Boles: Well, how challenging is this course? Do its assignments intentionally move you toward goals? 

Schug: So yeah. So I'll take that one. So how challenging is this course? The course is challenging. It's a lot of material to learn. And it's rigorous. And we're actually kind of proud that we deliver a lot of content to you guys. So I mean, but if you're students out there, the feedback we get from you, from students that have taken this course, is often I never knew biology could be so interesting. I never knew biology could be so fun. This was really a great course. And this is coming from students who started out thinking, oh God, I have to take a natural science course. 

Schug: So we've intentionally been very good at delivering this challenging material in a way that is actually really fun and appealing to you. And that's come from a large team of experts that have helped develop this, both Heather and I but also other instructors in UNCG online when these curriculum experts and so on have really helped otu to develop this course in a way that we can deliver a lot of material for you in a very fun way. 

Rushforth: Can I add one thing to that is that in the labs, we design them specifically so you're participating and you're learning. You will achieve. You will succeed at a high level. The lowest scores I see are from students who are just not participating. So engagement is also key, not just oh, I'm so smart, I know biology. You don't need to do that. You just need to engage, participate, do the work that we've asked you to do, and you will succeed in this course. 

Boles: Well, thank you Malcolm and Heather for a really exciting conversation, an insider look into BIO 105 where we were able to hear about how students are able to explore biology for themselves in their own homes, and do kitchen science together in groups, and make real connections with you, their instructors, and become empowered for the rest of their lives with these skills, and language, and understanding that they wouldn't have had otherwise. 

Boles: Thank you so much for joining us today on the show. For more information about these biology courses and other online courses at UNC Greensboro, visit our website at online.uncg.edu. And we'll see you next time for another episode of Online By Design. I'm Susie Bowles. 

Fletcher: And I'm Sid Fletcher. Online By Design is a production of UNCG Online.

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