Introduction

Converting in-person courses to an online and asynchronous format requires significant updates to instructional materials. In this report, we share how we adapted a two-semester, undergraduate biochemistry laboratory sequence to this modality, while simultaneously engaging students in the science of COVID-19. We modified the advanced course mid-semester and planned changes to the introductory course in advance. Pedagogical choices made in the advanced course leveraged pre-existing materials, which supported new learning objectives focused on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In contrast, changes to the introductory course relied heavily on new materials, which preserved the original course learning objectives and engaged students in SARS-CoV-2 research. Below, we describe aspects of this approach that supported a smooth transition to online instruction.

Real-time conversion of an in-person advanced biochemistry laboratory course to an online format

The advanced biochemistry laboratory course at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) is an upper-division capstone course focused on experimental design and technique. The second of a 2-course series, this course culminates in an 8-wk novel research project in which students generate and test a hypothesis based on a single amino acid change to the green fluorescence protein (GFP). Students design and complete experiments to assess the modified protein's function. Students had just begun this project when LMU moved online. Loss of campus access made finishing these research projects impossible. In response, we redesigned the course to engage students in a 5-wk SARS-CoV-2 project delivered in an asynchronous format. Below, we describe 3 potentially generalizable design principles applicable to situations requiring rapid, midsemester changes to teaching modality.

(a) Identify relevant and teachable learning objectives. Realizing that the learning objectives associated with the GFP project could not be adequately addressed online, we developed a new set of learning objectives related to SARS-CoV-2. In the resulting project, students related biochemical methods to the study of SARS-CoV-2 and the treatment of COVID-19. We used readily available resources, including video lectures, news articles, and scientific papers, to create course content and activities (Table 1). The new learning objectives were relevant and teachable in an online setting.

Table 1

Select content covered in the Advanced Biochemistry Laboratory course SARS-CoV-2 project.

Select content covered in the Advanced Biochemistry Laboratory course SARS-CoV-2 project.
Select content covered in the Advanced Biochemistry Laboratory course SARS-CoV-2 project.

(b) Engage students. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic placed a premium on student attention. In an attempt to engage students, we began the SARS-CoV-2 project with a This Week in Virology (TWiV) (1) introduction to the pandemic and a student interest survey on topics related to SARS-CoV-2. Student-selected topics included testing, vaccines, and antivirals (Table 1). By focusing on SARS-CoV-2, we acknowledged the pandemic's effect on students' lives while giving them tools to understand it.

(c) Be clear and predictable. Among the anxieties that students developed while learning under pandemic conditions was a concern that they might miss assignments. In an effort to reduce student stress, we divided the SARS-CoV-2 project into weekly units that we delivered in a consistent format. We shared relevant materials with students through a learning management system on the same day each week and scheduled due dates for 1 wk later. The weekly assignment guided students through multiple activities aligned with various learning objectives (Table 1). This consistency simplified the logistics of online teaching and was central to the subsequent development of an online introductory biochemistry laboratory course.

Integrating research into an online introductory biochemistry laboratory course

In LMU's introductory biochemistry laboratory course, students strengthen their scientific skills by being introduced to biochemical methods through a series of labs. With increased campus access and time to plan, 2 major changes were introduced. First, labs were presented as recorded experiments. Second, students engaged in scientific research through a new, 4-wk SARS-CoV-2 transitional lab. Given the extensive time requirements needed to create new materials, the course retained two-thirds of the labs included in earlier offerings. The following paragraphs discuss important aspects of this online and asynchronous course.

(a) Course delivery. As in the advanced course, course content was shared in a uniform way. Weekly materials included a detailed lab protocol, a recorded prelab lecture, experimental videos, raw data, the instructor's lab notebook entry, and detailed assignment instructions. The experimental videos showed what was done in the laboratory and provided visual context for the observations and data. An increased frequency of writing-intensive activities compensated for the decrease in hands-on experiment time. Assignments focused on the highly transferable skills that students use in most biochemical laboratory settings (2). These included understanding the fundamentals of biochemical techniques, analyzing and interpreting data, and communicating complex biochemical topics in written form.

(b) Using research as a lens for teaching. Student involvement in undergraduate research experiences (UREs) cultivates understanding and interest, increases likelihood of graduate school attendance, and helps transform students into scientists (36). To circumvent the problem of URE supply and demand, these experiences can be integrated into undergraduate curriculum through course-based UREs (CUREs) (712). Transitional labs bridge the gap between the divergent experiences of students completing traditional labs with those completing CUREs by introducing some of the hallmarks of CUREs (13, 14). For example, in traditional lab experiments, the outcome is known to both the instructor and students. Contrastingly, in a CURE, the outcome is unknown to both groups. In a transitional lab, the outcome is unknown to students but known to the instructor. This type of laboratory exercise may facilitate a student's transition from traditional labs to a CURE (13).

To engage students in research remotely, a new SARS-CoV-2 transitional lab was added to our introductory biochemistry laboratory course. The central objective was to introduce students to a variety of biochemical techniques as practiced in authentic scientific research. The research activities featured were part of a collaborative effort to identify small molecules that bind to a SARS-CoV-2 RNA structure and modify its function. The viral RNA structure targeted has an important role in the SARS-CoV-2 reproductive cycle. Thus, small molecules that modify the RNA's function and consequently inhibit viral reproduction may be candidate drugs for the treatment of COVID-19. In the 4-wk lab, students created an annotated bibliography from primary literature, viewed preliminary models of small molecules in complex with RNA by using the PyMOL Molecular Graphics System, version 2.3.2 (Schrödinger LLC, New York, NY), evaluated RNA purity and folding, quantified RNA function in the absence of small molecules, and suggested the next step in the research after comparing experimental data to published literature. In the future, we hope to assess whether this transitional lab affects student preparation for a subsequent CURE.

Conclusions

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic affected undergraduate education in a multitude of ways. Instructors teaching laboratory courses made difficult pedagogical decisions as they adapted to an online modality. When faced with an immediate transition to online education with no campus access, we used the SARS-CoV-2 literature to highlight the relevance of biochemical methods to real-world problems in an advanced biochemistry laboratory course. When moving an introductory biochemistry laboratory course online, a new transitional lab progressed time-sensitive SARS-CoV-2 research while introducing students to a variety of biochemical techniques. Although our circumstances were unique, aspects of our approach may be portable to other instructional contexts. For example, it is possible to include aspects of a CURE in a laboratory course, even when students are unable to perform the experiments themselves. Likewise, publicly available resources developed by experts can be used in courses regardless of modality. A growing body of open educational resources support online biophysics and biochemistry education (Table 2) (15, 16). Much like the approaches presented in this report, these resources can be leveraged to improve instruction beyond the pandemic, in both online and in-person courses.

Table 2

Open educational resources supporting online teaching.

Open educational resources supporting online teaching.
Open educational resources supporting online teaching.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This work was funded by KDM's Research Corporation for Science Advancement COVID initiative (27339) and Cottrell Scholar (23983) Awards. Dr. Amanda Hargrove and a graduate student in her lab, Martina Zafferani, contributed to the transitional lab by providing Protein Data Bank files and a video presentation on the collaborative SARS-CoV-2 research project. The authors thank Dr. Stephen Heller for providing helpful feedback on this manuscript.

SFM and KDM co-wrote and revised the manuscript and designed teaching materials for and taught the advanced biochemistry laboratory course. KDM developed new content for and taught the introductory biochemistry laboratory course.

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