METX Lab Courses Bring the Real Lab Experience to the Remote Setting 

While sequestered at home during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, Microbiology Instructor Todd Hillaker began to experiment.  Discussions with friends and colleagues about the difficulties of remote instruction motivated Todd to begin thinking about how microbiological experimentation could be effectively taught with non-hazardous alternatives available at home. Safety is a major priority for microbiology instruction and was the biggest challenge in designing a remote course.  However, the great thing about microbiology is that microbes exist everywhere and are a natural part of our daily lives.  Todd realized that he was already handling a myriad of non-hazardous microbes in his kitchen on a daily basis.

After some consideration, Todd decided students could utilize things like cheese and yogurt as sources of microbes.  To test this notion, Todd immediately went to work in his home ‘microbiology field station’.  Soon, Todd had isolated lactic acid bacteria from each of the various types of cheese and yogurt on hand in his fridge.  Later, he determined that baker’s yeast also easily provided live, active cultures.  This initial work became the basis for the development of the exercises that currently make up the hands-on portion of the remote offering of UCSC’s Microbiology Lab, METX119L, involving real experimentation with non-hazardous microbiological materials in the comfort of the student’s home. Experiments involve common household items and a minimal amount of disposable lab materials sent to students by mail. Students learn about microbiological techniques using commonly available food items and experience lab work remotely while sending samples back to UCSC for analysis to determine the outcomes of their own experiments.

The next step was to achieve the full scope of the learning objectives of the course, which includes learning to communicate science, developing presentation skills, and working on experimental design approaches,  This goal was taken on by the Fall quarter instructor, Dr. Burcak Artun, who has been teaching the METX 119L since 2017. It made sense to combine the remote exercises developed by Todd with various LABSTER simulations and discussions of relevant lab techniques and papers led by the TAs. Moreover, it would be possible to provide data to make up for the exercises which could not be carried out at home.

The course is now run synchronously with the full support of UCSC’s Physical and Biological Sciences laboratory staff, led by the diligent efforts of Dr. Julio Harvey.  Students are sent their remote kits in advance, log on to their TA’s zoom section in small groups, and actively do the experiments by participating in a collaborative lab section run at the scheduled times. Discussions and lab exercises are solidified with in-person demonstrations done by the TAs, and in return, TAs have the chance to observe the students and work with them in real-time. This model provides the students an opportunity to participate in a successful remote lab, keep up the enthusiasm about microbiology, sharpen their science communication skills,  and experience first hand the many applications of microbiology in the real world.

Hear what our students said:

  • "The remote lab kits are really cool and conducting labs at home was something I was not expecting at all and I was really excited about microorganisms because I am a visual learner. I learn best by watching videos and doing hands-on or interactive activities, and Labster allows me to feel like I am in a real lab while giving me more time to perform each step and take the time to absorb the information."
  • "I think the remote labs are great! Though it's not quirte like the labs we would be doing at school, I think they do a good job with what we are currently facing in this world. I really like the discussion sections and how well everything is explained."
  • "I honestly have been enjoying the class immensely given the constraints of remote learning and I don't think there is anything I would change."