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SEA-PHAGES Lab Innovates for Remote Learning Environment


By Gina Myers

screenshot of Zoom classroom with Brett Condon in a science lab

May 17, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has brought many challenges to the college classroom as instructors had to adapt in-person classes for a remote environment. However, these challenges created some interesting opportunities and innovative ideas.

Susan Gurney, PhD, and Brett Condon, PhD, who co-teach the Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) course, had a novel solution to move their extremely hands-on lab online.

In a typical year, the advanced freshman biology course takes place over three terms, beginning in the fall, when students collect soil samples and then isolate bacteriophages, which is a virus that infects and replicates within bacterial cells. In the second term, the students annotate the genome sequences of their phages, and in the third term, they pursue their own independent research projects.

“Labs really require you to be there,” says Condon, who is a post-doctoral fellow in Biology. “The whole purpose is to engage students in their own skill development and their own discovery of research by doing it themselves. When we learned that the course was going to have to be online, I didn’t want to let go of what I thought was the most important part of SEA-PHAGES, which is students engaging themselves individually in the content and learning by doing.”

While Condon and Gurney briefly considered working with pre-recorded videos, they were worried that those would not engage the students at the level they wanted for the lab. Ultimately, they arrived at the conclusion that they needed to do the lab live.

“Hands-on” Experience

Freshman Vivek Babu was not sure what to expect when showing up for his first SEA-PHAGES lab. “I was very skeptical at first. I had heard about what some other schools were doing for lab from friends, and a lot were using virtual computer programs—almost like playing a computer game,” he explains.

“When we came into the first class, we immediately saw Dr. Condon. He’s in the lab setting and has a camera strapped to his chest and one on his head. He said, ‘I’m basically going to be the hands of this, but you guys have full reign to tell me what to do.’”

With support from IT and the Center for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning Excellence (CASTLE), Gurney and Condon arrived at the high-tech solution of using body cams and smart screens that could give students both a full view of the lab as well as a first-person perspective when conducting experiments. Additionally, they wanted students to feel like they had autonomy in the lab, which is why Condon did only what the students instructed him to do.

Condon says, “We would support the students, teach them, give them the skills, and point them in the right directions, but the whole point is that the students needed to be the ones making the decisions, so we put them in charge. Decision making and troubleshooting is the heart of science.”

The method was effective. Babu says, “What really made the lab good was that we were able to troubleshoot our own problems. It really felt like we were doing real science even though we weren’t physically in the lab.”

Creating Community

Beyond the science of the lab, it was also important that the students have fun and develop a sense of community. Gurney, an associate teaching professor of Biology, has taught the SEA-PHAGES course since it first came to Drexel in 2015. “Between lecture and lab, I see the students basically every day in the fall and winter term and then two days a week in the spring term. It’s a fun atmosphere and it becomes a little community,” she says. “I really wanted to try to recreate that online.”

For Gurney, the nature of the pandemic created an even greater need to try to foster this sense of community. “These are freshman students who had never been on campus. They’re in college but they’re sitting at home with their families around them. They don’t really feel a part of campus yet,” she explains. “We tried really hard to give them a space in class and help them see they were part of a community.”

They used Flipgrid for the students to record their own introductions, had breakout rooms, encouraged communication through multiple channels like Slack and even had free time when students could share anything they wanted. This free time resulted in one student playing the saxophone for the class. They would also use the time to play games on the whiteboard or sing “Happy Birthday” if someone was celebrating a birthday. Animals would show up on screen, and at the end of the term Gurney issued certificates of attendance to the various cats and dogs who contributed to SEA-PHAGES.

“I think we were successful in building community,” says Gurney. “Now that some students are on campus, we’re seeing them Zoom into class from the same room. Other SEA-PHAGES students are stopping by to say hi.”

Shyam Saravanan is one student who felt connected to his classmates. “Through breakout rooms and class discussion, I was really able to connect with other classmates and my professors. Through Flipgrid and our class communication method, I was able to meet other kids in SEA-PHAGES,” he says. “I was even able to find one of my roommates for next year.”

Student Alex Vallarta also had a positive experience. He says, “Although we get work done, we do it in a fun way, getting to know each other as we go. For example, Dr. Condon and I talked a lot about Dungeons and Dragons. There’s class joke that one of our peers owes us all donuts. I talk to my classmates fairly often and hang out with them now that a lot of us are on campus.” He adds, “In fact, I went to the Philly Museum of Art with two of them the other day. I am looking forward to spending my time here at Drexel with all of them. They’re great people that I am excited to grow and learn with.”

Creativity and Competition

Two additional things that helped form the strong community within SEA-PHAGES were the creative projects at the end of fall term and something called the PHAGE Cup.

While the fall project is always a creative project, the students in the remote environment truly embraced the creative aspect. Their projects took on a variety of forms, from a scavenger hunt to a cookie-baking demonstration, illustrations, music videos and meme compilations, among other things.

Saravanan created a storybook about a phage who travels to other locations where phages can be discovered. While being creative, the project also delivered informative content. “I tried to explain why phages live where they live and how they use their environment to their advantage,” he says.

Vallarta worked with two other students, Albert Tang and Max Maser, to create a phage-based parody of Journey’s classic rock anthem “Don’t Stop Believin.’” Their song was “Don’t Stop the Phagin’” and featured the students playing various instruments, which were arranged, mixed and edited into a video by Vallarta.

Gurney and Condon were impressed by the creativity and content of the projects. “It was a wonderful balance between freedom and actual communication,” says Condon. “It was a true highlight for us as instructors because you sit back and just feel so happy with everything your students were able to accomplish. It was wonderful to see the students feel comfortable enough with their colleagues to let their guard down and share who they are.”

The PHAGE Cup was a new addition to the course that involved the sections competing against each other. During the bioinformatics portion of the course, the sections would annotate their genome sequences and then share their annotations with the other sections, who would have the opportunity to make corrections to them. The winner of the PHAGE Cup was the section that was able to annotate their genome sequence most accurately.

The competition allowed students to get to know other SEA-PHAGES students outside of their own lab, and it is something that Gurney thinks could be useful to continue doing once the class returns to being in-person in order help create a cross-section community.

SEA-PHAGES Symposium

Babu was selected to represent the Drexel SEA-PHAGES course at the National SEA-PHAGES Symposium, where he presented on the work of the Drexel SEA-PHAGES students. Since the event was held virtually this year, all students could attend.

During the Symposium, Babu was able to meet other educators and students, many of whom were interested to hear how Drexel was able to do the SEA-PHAGES course in a remote environment. A lot of schools had skipped the first part of the course that involves collecting soil samples and isolating phages because they did not know how to do that without students being present in the lab.

“I think a big part of SEA-PHAGES is doing all of the lab procedures to isolate our phages,” Babu says. “While our experience was modified some, we really did have a similar experience to previous years, and a lot of the educators were interested in learning about how we did that.”

The experience of presenting at the Symposium connected Babu to the larger scientific community. He saw that everyone there shared the same foundational knowledge about phages, and he was able to understand the more advanced research, including a presentation by Graham Hatfull, PhD, who founded what is now the SEA-PHAGES program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“The opportunity to do research as a freshman is one of the reasons I chose to come to Drexel,” Babu says. “I had never attended a symposium before and gotten to see the work of researchers like this. It’s amazing to be a part of the scientific community.”

He also credits Gurney and Condon for delivering an incredible and unique experience. “All props to Dr. Gurney and Dr. Condon. I will never experience a virtual lab like I did for SEA-PHAGES. I felt like I really contributed something,” he says. “I will always carry this experience with me.”