BI 213H is the third course in the three-part Principles of Biology lecture and laboratory series. The Honors College proposed an honors section of the Principles of Biology laboratory to the Department of Integrative Biology in the late 2000s; in 2012, an honors section of the lecture was created to form the complete honors Principles of Biology sequence. The courses cover all the basics of biology, from genetics and evolution to natural selection and ecology.
Like most OSU courses, the faculty responsible for BI 213H faced significant difficulties while adjusting to remote teaching during spring term 2020. As Dr. Nathan Kirk, a professor who often teaches BI 213H, puts it, “Everything was a challenge.”
“Our format really highlighted the inequities in our student body,” Nathan says.
Because the course heavily emphasizes discussions, group work and in-class activities, students’ lack of access to stable internet, functioning microphones and cameras or even a safe place to learn became obstacles for the course to run smoothly. Coupled with the challenges of figuring out Zoom for the first time, there was a steep learning curve for both students and professors alike.
Even with the struggles of remote learning, students like Eliora Olivares believe that the experience brought the class together not only as students, but as friends.
“The people I was working with, I had already had in previous classes,” Eliora says. “We were friends, but we got closer because we had that sense of ‘We’re in this together.’”
Building community in a remote learning environment was made easier by the BI 213H Learning Assistants (LAs), who facilitated a successful class experience by answering questions in the chat, travelling between breakout rooms and helping group work progress smoothly. Ammara Molvi, one of the LAs in spring term 2020, felt that her role was also to help provide support beyond the virtual classroom.
“As an LA, it was important to make sure that students [knew] that they could reach out to us or Nate if they ever needed extra help,” she says.
Despite the challenges inherent in remote learning, Eliora appreciated the course environment: “The way in which honors bio was set up, with breakout rooms and an LA that bounces around, really encouraged us to talk things through,” she says. “Nate and the LAs really helped make a welcoming environment.”
Though the Principles of Biology professors successfully weathered the abrupt transition to remote learning in spring, they are faced with another challenge in the 2020-2021 school year: the sequence is being drastically changed, and the class that was historically offered in the fall, BI 211H, is being replaced with BI 221H.
The new sequence features changes that, based on studies about the peer-learning model, should improve student understanding of class material. This includes removing some content to increase focus on group discussions and to emphasize physiology over anatomy.
“Instead of memorizing a bunch of random factoids about biology, [we will focus on] being able to actually understand, interpret and explore biological topics,” Nathan says.
While the changes were originally planned for an in-person course, they were made with the understanding that the pandemic would most likely result in a remote school year. Because of this, the BI 213H professors have attempted to make the course as robust and fail-safe as possible, with video lectures for students unable to attend synchronous classes, user-friendly homework with increased clarity of what is due when and more LAs to help Zoom sessions run smoothly.
For Ammara, the new remote learning format has had at least one benefit: “Remote teaching definitely makes you look at what is working and what isn’t,” she says, “ultimately making the course better.”
By Lucas Yao: Student Writer, Honors College