Mercy College congratulates Assistant Professor Chun Zhou for his recent publication in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education journal. His timely article titled, “Lessons from the unexpected adoption of online teaching for an undergraduate genetics course with lab classes,” aims to improve teaching efficacy during the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as most professors have been forced to transition from in-person to online instruction.
Before Mercy College had to make the abrupt transition from in-person to remote instruction in mid-March due to COVID-19, Zhou had never taught online classes. While he was unfamiliar with the format, Zhou dove right into learning the ins-and-outs of online education platforms, tools and software that would continue to make his classes accessible and engaging for students. “Once I got into it, I appreciated the benefits of an online teaching format,” Zhou explained.
The article details the key features of online teaching he found beneficial, for example, the use of powerful tools in promoting student interaction. Also, in using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Zoom as his online teaching modality, Zhou can record his lectures, which enables students to learn at their own pace. This element of customized learning, as mentioned in the article, “…allow[s] students to focus on critical thinking and synthesizing questions for in-class discussions, rather than taking lecture notes.”
Zhou teaches several biology classes, including genetics, general biology, microbiology, immunology and biochemistry, out of Mercy’s School of Health and Natural Sciences. Most require labs, which are crucial to giving students the practical skills needed to pursue research positions, and other science professions, after college.
Because in-person labs were put on hold for the spring 2020 semester, Zhou developed online lab activities for students in his genetics course that consisted of three components: a prelab assignment, in-class lab experiments and a postlab assignment. The article lists the websites, articles, videos and other resources used to develop the ultimately successful labs, which involved DNA isolation and restriction enzyme analysis, bacterial identification and data analysis. According to Zhou, “…it appears that well-designed online labs can be used to engage students in achieving an in-depth understanding of the science, technology and experimental protocols.”
Zhou also emphasizes the need for biology students to experience hands-on learning in a laboratory setting in the article and believes that a hybrid model of online and in-person learning is the best course of action for a biology student.
Zhou looks forward to the reopening of Mercy, and the return of lab classes, for the fall 2020 semester. In ensuring the health and safety of students, Zhou and his colleagues are following the guidance of Mercy’s reopening plan as they safeguard laboratory spaces. “First, we’re conducting a risk assessment to determine the maximum number of students suitable for each class, the amount and type of personal protective equipment needed, and appropriate workstation set up to adhere to social distancing policies,” he explained. “Students will have their own materials and will be asked to put their lab coats in plastics bags after use to combat potential contamination.”
While the steps to secure the labs may be tedious, again, Zhou sees advantages to the new lab structure and schedule. “Before, students were put into teams to perform procedures in the lab, and they were only able to complete several steps. Now, since they must keep a social distance, each student will be given the opportunity to complete the whole procedure themselves. I see that as a positive outcome,” Zhou said.
Zhou is grateful for Mercy’s leadership in providing faculty and staff the resources and flexibility needed to be successful during this time. “We’ve been able to come up with novel strategies so that we can continue to improve our teaching quality,” he said. “And, in getting exceptional support from the College, I’ve been able to better serve my students, making them more successful in achieving their academic goals during a challenging time.”