Educator Spotlight: Robert Lue, Harvard University (Part 2)

Robert Lue is faculty director and principal investigator of LabXchange. At Harvard University, Rob is a professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology who is known for his work fostering innovative teaching and learning. He was founding faculty director of HarvardX, and currently serves as Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and faculty director of the Harvard Ed Portal.

Since 1998, Rob has also taught undergraduate courses acclaimed for their interdisciplinary approach. One of his courses, MCB 64: Cell Biology in the World, teaches fundamental concepts in cell biology in the context of individual life histories drawn from different parts of the world. Cases presented within the course delve into major biological events across the life history of a human being, weaving key concepts in cell biology with their societal implications. Shortly after Harvard announced that classes would move online for the spring 2020 semester in response to the COVID19 pandemic, Rob shared his experience recreating his course in an online setting.

Read Part 1 here.

Part 2: Teaching the Doing of Science Online

My course MCB 64: Cell Biology in the World doesn’t have a lab component. However, the course does require students to engage with primary research literature. MCB 64 is a second year course, and as a result, students often enter with very different backgrounds. For example, some students have seen a restriction digest of DNA, some haven’t; some have worked with proteins, some haven’t. The research articles we assign are chosen both for a specific discovery and how it was made, but also to introduce one or more classic lab techniques. With LabXchange, we can now easily complement the papers with simulations that deal with these common protocols. This helps students more fully benefit from engaging with primary literature and with hands-on research.

A screenshot of enzymes in the Restriction Digest simulation

LabXchange’s Restriction Digest simulation

What’s especially compelling about the LabXchange simulations is the notion of troubleshooting: trying something out, comparing what you predicted and what you got, then having to troubleshoot what happened. That arc of analysis and reflection is baked into LabXchange simulations. The goal of lab courses, and the notion of experimental design, is a combination of being able to learn and experience techniques, interpret the resulting data, and design what the consequent experiment might be.

A screenshot of Monique Brewster, the scientist featured in LabXchange's Restriction Enzyme Digest method video.

LabXchange’s Restriction Enzyme Digest method video

LabXchange covers all of those arcs. The simulations and the method videos on the platform equip students to understand what a method is, how we do it, how we troubleshoot it, and what it actually looks like in a lab setting. You can accompany this with data interpretation exercises. Using data sets from published literature, students can interpret and critique the experiment and its result. And you can close the arc with your own customized assessment. LabXchange gives us the tools to build multiple choice or short answer assessments that allow you to weave in the data and optimize your use of the experiment as an example.

If LabXchange doesn’t have an experimental design that’s relevant to what you’re trying to teach, try turning the pedagogical arc into a series of questions instead. After all, procedures and methods can be used in many different ways. In this way, the experimental design simulation is a form of assignment. You don’t need to go through the full drag and drop user experience LabXchange has created; just give students all the methods and ask, “Now, what are the steps that we need to do?” This is also where the pathway model works especially well, and allows you to recombine a variety of things and really address your priorities.

A screenshot of LabXchange's cluster on Foundational Concepts and Techniques in Biotechnology

LabXchange’s cluster on Foundational Concepts and Techniques in Biotechnology

There’s no question that science involves learning physical finesse and developing muscle memory from practicing techniques. But at its core, science is really the process of hypothesis building, of design, data interpretation, reanalysis and troubleshooting. To say that science is a singular set of hands-on activities no longer makes sense to me. It’s not as if there are many methods that are done in exactly the same way forever: how we do things in the lab changes at an extraordinarily fast rate.

Today, we have an opportunity to use a combination of approaches to achieve the conceptual and problem-solving expertise of the scientific process together with the physical and technical finesse. Indeed, what we can achieve with simulations and the like is a powerful on-ramp to what we can do in a physical lab – or in other hands-on settings, which are well worth exploring!

Quick Links:

Restriction Enzyme Digest Simulation
Running a Protein Gel Simulation
Foundational Concepts and Techniques in Biotechnology
Lab Simulations
Experimental Design Simulation
Method Videos
How to Add Your Own Assessment
Teach Experimental Thinking Pathway
LabXchange Pathways
Scientific Method Pathway
Lab Etiquette Pathway

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