This fall, students in a new cross-disciplinary PhD program in biomedical sciences will matriculate at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). Because of SARS-CoV-2—the coronavirus responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic—whether or not the program’s 15 enrollees can meet in person in September is still up in the air.

“All of us are waiting to see how the next month or two goes, so that we can have an idea of what is going to happen before we pull the trigger and decide” about in-person classes, says Georgiana Purdy, a microbiologist and the director of the new program at OHSU. Fall term, when first-year students spend most of their time in class together, is really important for building a sense of community within the cohort, “and I don’t know if you get the same thing if you have to be online,” she adds. “It’d...

We have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

—Craig Roy, Yale University

The quick switch to online classes that happened in March at most US institutions was enacted to keep students and staff healthy. But as institutions prepare for the fall, it’s not clear what science education in the 2020–21 academic year will look like. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, about two-thirds of colleges and universities are planning for in-person classes, alongside measures to maintain social distancing and to trace contacts of anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. The University of California, San Diego, for instance, plans to test the entire campus community—some 65,000 people—for SARS-CoV-2 every month in what they are calling the Return to Learn program. 

With the future of the pandemic unclear, though, these precautions may not do enough to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, leading many institutions to explore alternative options, from online teaching to innovative course design, all the while attempting to balance student health and happiness with high quality instruction and mentorship.

See “The Pandemic’s Effects on Recruiting International STEM Trainees

Maintaining a safe distance between students

At Beloit College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, students and faculty are already planning a module-based semester. Instead of a typical load of four simultaneous courses over fifteen weeks, students will take two courses prior to fall break and two courses after fall break, according to a letter sent to students by college president Scott Bierman at the end of March. 

“The modular system allows me the flexibility to teach my courses in a regular block format with five three-hour sessions of combined class and lab each week, or to adopt a hybrid model with in-person labs and online class in the event that social restrictions limit the total number of individuals that can occupy a lab at one time,” Ted Gries, a biochemist at Beloit, writes in an email to The Scientist. In the hybrid model, he would manage the course’s online content and be in the lab five days a week repeating each lab with a small portion of the class. 

For faculty planning to teach in-person courses, there are additional options on the table to maintain social distancing and reduce the probability of disease transmission.

Gries is one of many faculty coming to grips with the prospect of teaching at least some courses online for the foreseeable future—something the past few months have helped staff prepare for. After universities began to close their campuses this spring, researchers experimented with teaching through platforms such as Blackboard and Google Classroom and holding meetings and dissertation defenses via Zoom or Webex.

Gries, for example, taught the second half of his intermediate-level biochemistry course on nutrition and metabolism—including the lab—virtually. “There is a tactile and mental awareness required when physically working in the lab that is not present in virtual lab sessions,” he tells The Scientist. “I mourn the loss of those developmental experiences for my students in the second half of the semester, but tried to create an environment where students were still engaged with forming a hypothesis, interpreting quantitative and qualitative observations, and drawing evidence-based conclusions.” 

Carol Lutz, an RNA biologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, oversees a Master of Biomedical Sciences program that will also incorporate remote options next semester. “If somebody wants to attend our master’s program but they live in Nebraska and they’re afraid to come to New Jersey, we want to make sure that they feel that they can participate—at least this fall, and we’ll visit spring later on,” she says. As for other programs at the Rutgers School of Graduate Studies, the plan for this fall is to have face-to-face instruction for smaller courses and to have the labs open for PhD students to make progress on their research projects. 

Yale University administrators are contemplating something similar. The leadership of Yale’s biological and biomedical science (BBS) graduate program is currently planning to offer in-person classes, but they’re also preparing to have all classes available remotely, so that even first-year students who can’t make it to campus in the fall will still have access to classes and instructors. 

The University of California, San Diego, aims to test students, faculty, and staff at regular intervals as a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on its campus.
Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications.

“We may be looking at a little bit of a hybrid between people who are physically able to come to campus and participate in activities on campus with strict social distancing [and] those who will be participating remotely for that first semester,” Craig Roy, who studies microbial pathogenesis at Yale and directs the BBS program, tells The Scientist. “We have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” 

For faculty planning to teach in-person courses, there are additional options on the table to maintain social distancing and reduce the probability of disease transmission. For an undergraduate invertebrate organismal biology course that biologist Greg Pask will teach next year at Middlebury College in Vermont, he says he is planning less time sitting and looking at microscope specimens in the lab—the classic way invertebrate biology is taught—and more time out in the field, using apps such as iNaturalist, which allows users to identify animals and plants.  

Adapting STEM education to the pandemic

For the most part, instructors and group leaders adapted just fine to the practical challenges of switching STEM education over to virtual teaching and mentoring this spring. But as educators look toward next year, they’re trying to maximize the educational experience in these virtual venues and to shift academic schedules around to make the best of the difficult circumstances.  

This April, for example, Rutgers’s Lutz held a workshop over Zoom to discuss the variety of fellowship applications open to graduate students. She encouraged first-year graduate students to apply for National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowships. Students tend to start thinking about fellowships in the second year because that’s when they take their qualifying exams, she says. But the shutdowns were a great time for even first-year students to consider writing an NSF fellowship application, she says; the process doesn’t require much preliminary data and is only open to students in the first or second year of graduate school.

We want to make sure that students feel supported and connected.

—Carol Lutz, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

Pask, currently at Bucknell University until his move to Middlebury later this summer, also incorporated proposal-writing into his students’ experience to take advantage of their time in the virtual classroom. For the lab portion of the neurophysiology course he adapted after Bucknell classes went online this spring, he asked students to write a five-page research proposal, an exercise that could also be incorporated into future courses—online or not. A few of the student groups focused on the neurobiology of anosmia related to COVID-19, he says. “In a time when they could’ve very easily detached from their studies given everything going on, they were using current science problems and trying to come up with some novel experiments to provide solutions.” 

Some universities are planning larger administrative modifications to their programs. Faculty at Yale, for example, have rearranged the academic timeline for students finishing their first year in the BBS program. Normally, students would take time off in the second semester of their second year to prepare for and take their qualifying exams. But in 2020, first-year students who have already selected the lab they want to work in are each preparing a document with experimental plans and getting their qualifying exam committees on board so they can take the exams over the summer. The hope is that “when labs reopen they’ll already have checked this box,” says Roy, “so those first year students really won’t lose any research progress time.” 

Meanwhile Kara Bernstein, a molecular biologist and director of the molecular genetics and developmental biology (MGDB) graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, says that she and her colleagues are considering frontloading the fall semester with classes. Typically, incoming graduate students spend time in several lab rotations as well as doing coursework throughout their first year. “If we stack it so they’re doing more coursework in the beginning . . . depending upon what the second semester looks like, maybe they could do more laboratory rotations,” she says. 

Looking out for the students

Many faculty and staff are concerned not only about students’ academic success during the pandemic, but about their mental health and wellbeing. In an April letter to the editor of Psychiatry Research, Yusen Zhai, a licensed professional counselor at the Edwin L. Herr Clinic at Pennsylvania State University, and Xue Du, a food scientist at Penn State, called for institutions everywhere to increase access to tele–mental health counseling and to reach out to students with information about coping resources during and after the pandemic.

It’s a call that institutions are answering. Penn State students can now access tele-counseling, a Zoom drop-in consultation clinic, and group meetings focused on specific challenges such as anxiety via the university’s counseling and psychological services program. And mental health services at the University of California, Irvine, for instance, have been available via tele-health since March 18.  

Some universities are also including students in the decision-making process for the coming academic year. The University of Virginia (UVA), for instance, has surveyed undergraduates as well as graduate and professional students about their preferences for the fall. In the survey, most students indicated that they could adapt to the scenarios that UVA administrators are considering for the fall semester—including a module-based semester and a month-long delay of the beginning of classes—but it’s not yet clear what decision the university’s leadership will make. 

Kara Bernstein (bottom right) of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine leads a virtual lab meeting via Zoom.
KARA Bernstein

When program administrators polled graduate students in the BBS program at Yale this spring, the top concern for about 80 percent of trainees was lack of productivity, but the remaining 20 percent were most worried about the possibility of contracting the virus. As labs start to reopen in the next few months at Yale, checking in with the students about these and other concerns is paramount, Roy notes. “We’ve said you should not return to lab if you’re not comfortable with the current status. There’s going to be no retribution,” he says. “We have been very clear with students and all trainees that, as we enter this next phase, returning to the lab is completely voluntary.”

As educational modes continue to shift and change this fall, it’s good for all instructors to focus on “structural ways that we can think more mindfully about our students’ overall wellbeing,” says Asao Inoue, whose work at Arizona State University focuses on antiracism, social justice, and compassion in the classroom. Extra stress and concerns that everyone is going to have—whether or not courses are taught remotely in the fall—are going to affect students’ ability to be able to get to their classes and learn, he adds.

One benefit to have come from the switch to remote learning is the more careful thinking about grading options, in the sense that a pass-fail structure and other types of flexibility seem much more likely now, when there are other problems to deal with, Inoue says. Conventional ways of producing and calculating grades in the classroom do not help students learn, and the reasonable thing to do is to offer more options—both in terms of grading and allowing students to withdraw from courses without typical consequences. 

It’s “really up again to us as instructors to reach out to make sure that our students are being accommodated to the best of our abilities in this new environment using this new mode of education,” says Katelyn Cooper, who studies biology education at the University of Central Florida. Students with disabilities or students coping with fewer resources or challenges at home are especially vulnerable, she adds. “If we bend a rule, if we extend a deadline, will that hinder student learning or will that help student learning? Right now, for me the answer more often than not is it’s going to help our students’ learning.”

One of the most important things is making sure everybody knows what’s going on, Lutz says. At Rutgers, for instance, administrators are currently running a virtual town hall for graduate students every two weeks to provide a forum for students to have their questions answered. She also sends a daily email to students, just to check in. “The need for student communication has vastly grown. We want to make sure that students feel supported and connected.”

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