Biology Faculty Adapts to Online Instruction to Continue Student Success

The spring 2020 semester is one Tatiana Vasquez and her students won’t ever forget.

A biology instructor and co-chair of the biology department, Vasquez had to quickly adapt her classes so students could continue to learn from home after campus closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before this, she had been regularly reading the scientific findings on COVID-19, and was “already gearing up mentally” to move online.

“I was updating students on a daily basis, so much that my students and I decided to try one of my labs online to test the platform,” she said. “This was a really good tryout, but we — my students and I — quickly noticed the flaws of teaching and learning online. When the college sent the news of remote learning, we were at least mentally ready for that call. During the week of transition, I held a Zoom social for each of my classes and I also conducted surveys to get a better feeling for the students’ needs.”

Inside the biology department, there are faculty leads for each of the courses taught, but with distance learning now part of the equation, “the discussions were different,” Vasquez said. “This meant that adjunct and full-time faculty were collaborating to make sure we were serving the students with the tools we had at our disposal.”

Each faculty member stepped up to the plate, sharing their course materials or expertise with online tools. They were also “engaged in researching online materials that would best fit our course goals, including skill-building, which is definitely a great challenge for a discipline that is very hands-on,” Vasquez said.

Most of the first week of online learning was dedicated to testing the technology, including Google Docs, and Vasquez thought it would be “a good idea to create our parameters of online learning too, so we revised and discuss them together.”

It was important to Vasquez that her students know that since they were all in “uncharted territories,” they needed to be “flexible and kind with each other. I think I was lucky that most of my students felt comfortable to speak up and express their fears and desires, too. But I know others were timid, so the chats became a useful way to give them a platform and this lasted for the remainder of the semester.”

Students shared that they had concerns and anxiety over their exams and labs, which are “very hands-on and research based.” They were “really bummed out that they could no longer perform their projects, which we had already started in some cases,” Vasquez said. “Also, some of the students were in their last semester to transfer so their concerns were about acceptance of the ‘online’ course for UC/CSU transfer or for the professional schools, such as pharmacy and medical.”

She estimates that it took about two weeks for the students to feel more relaxed, “but their anxiety never went down to zero, or the usual levels for a science class.” The students were always “polite and professional” when relaying their worries, Vasquez said, but she could also tell when “some of the students were slipping away. Their attendance was less energetic than when we were face-to-face. Some of those students really missed the physical way of learning.”

Even for the students who were trying their best to be present, “it just wasn’t the same for them,” Vasquez said. “I tried my best to engage them, but I also knew that being at home was a challenge. Being on campus meant that they could be focused, and that’s what they wanted.”

Lab work is necessary for science — it creates community, collaboration, and epiphanies. It is also “inherently hands-on learning,” Vasquez said, and while online simulations attempt to mirror this, it “isn’t the same kind of skill practice. The experiment process, the hand-eye maneuvers, the activated brain, the coaching, the ‘aha’ moments, all of these happen simultaneously, many times in a single lab.”

Those are the reasons why Vasquez “loves science,” and they can’t be replicated online. “Just think of learning how to change a flat tire on your car from a video only,” she said. “You really can’t feel how heavy the replacement tire is or how difficult it is to loosen the lug nuts — moreover what are the many tricks to loosen those?”

For one of her courses, Vasquez was able to have students conduct research projects outdoors. Typically, she takes her students to the San Bernardino Mountains, “but their homes or apartment complexes also have interesting urban flora and fauna,” she said. “Some students studied nocturnal spiders, others studied bird behavior and food preferences, and a few studied snail populations, plant-pollinator visitation and plant phenology. Their projects really brought out the urban ecology we often ignore.”

To teach from home, Vasquez uses a laptop, iPad, and desktop computer. She jokes that her work space is “organized chaos,” and during live sessions, her two cats sometimes made appearances by jumping on top of her folders and books. When the spring semester was finished, “even with my awesome students, I was very exhausted, more than any other semester I have taught,” Vasquez said. “I needed a little breather before doing it again.”

Vasquez was awed by the “motivation” and “grit” displayed by her students, and said that even when there were technical issues and Zoom bombings, “my students were the ones that kept me going. They were having challenges, but they wanted to stay connected, they wanted to keep doing biology.” It has “definitely been an unforgettable period in my career, and I think for my students as well,” she added.

Technology has its limits, and is not a replacement for social learning, so “even when I employed interactive engagement, it just wasn’t the same way,” Vasquez said. Online learning also affects students of color in a disproportionate manner, which she saw firsthand. “As a biologist, I fully understand the need to maintain quarantine methods for everyone’s health,” she said. “So, I will try to do the best to support my students’ growth in these very challenging times and I hope to keep transforming my teaching for my students’ benefit.”

The weight of moving hands-on biology courses to a virtual format has been heavy, and at times Vasquez has felt “isolated and powerless,” she said. “But, I am lucky to be here and be healthy. I want to empower my incoming students and continue to collaborate with my colleagues in the reform of education’s racist policies and ideologies.”

Founded in 1926, San Bernardino Valley College (SBVC) is a comprehensive community college offering hundreds of degree programs, on campus and online.