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2014 January 31

Biomed lab tours and online discussions

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:22
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I forgot to type up notes after the sixth day of the freshman design seminar, because I had a meeting right afterwards.  I’ll try to make up the deficit now, two days later.

At the beginning of class I collected the homework (which had originally been due Monday, but which I had given an extension on, so that students could do it right).  I’ve not looked at it yet, but I could tell when I collected it that students had taken to heart the message to type up their homework and put some care into it.  I hope that spills over into their other classes—not only will it benefit them, but it will help our department if the bioengineering students get a reputation for being diligent and meticulous.

Most of the class time was spent on lab tours in the Biomed building, given by four grad students who work there.  The tours were good, providing students with some idea what sort of work was being done and what sort of equipment was available for doing the work.  They saw high-temperature incubators for hyperthermophiles, a glovebox for working with anaerobic organisms, a qPCR machine, an ultracentrifuge, a cell sorter, a large warm room (hardly being used—there was one shaker table with one flask, which would easily have fit in a benchtop incubator),  mammalian cell culture facilities, and a teaching microscope for mouse surgery.  (And other stuff that I won’t bother to list here.)

The whole Biomed building seems to be half empty and even the occupied lab bays have a huge amount of space per person, especially compared to the rather cramped labs stuffed with students and researchers that we saw in Baskin a couple of weeks ago, which makes it irksome that the University administration has been preventing our department from doing recruiting for wet-lab faculty for lack of lab space.  All the space is earmarked for growth in a different department, which would take them 10 years to fill (if they ever manage to do so).  The space planning on our campus seems to be done by turf wars between deans with no central rebalancing, and one dean (not ours) now holds all the empty space on campus.  Our dean has an unimproved warehouse 3 miles away which would cost millions to convert into anything usable, even if it made sense to exile active researchers from campus.

The lab tour ran a bit long, and half the class had to leave, but the other half got an interesting discussion about getting into research as an undergrad from a grad student who had been an undergrad here.

The e-mail mailing list for the class is still not serving its function of providing an out-of-class discussion space.  Only eight students have posted anything and no student has responded to another student.  The list is still useful for my making announcement (like when homework has been posted on the web site), but it isn’t working as a discussion forum.  I’m apparently not very good at creating online discussions—I’ve not gotten them to work in classes yet, and even this blog has 86 views for every comment (and 40% of those comments are mine, so the ratio is more like 144 views per external comment).

I looked for some stats on MOOC discussion groups, to see how my online discussion compares with classes that are only on-line.  I found a series of blog posts by Jeffrey Pomerantz where he analyzes the data for a MOOC course he is teaching.  The one about online discussions showed him getting 1787 posts and 707 comments in 8 weeks, for a class whose size was 27623 total registrants, 14130 active students,  9321 video viewers, 2938 who did one homework, or 1418 who completed the course (numbers from his post about course completion).  If we take the video viewers as the most realistic measure of the class size, we get about 3.3% of the students posting or commenting per week.  Maybe my 60% participation in one week is not as bad as I feared, even if it doesn’t have the feel of a discussion yet.

2014 January 13

Third day of freshman design seminar

We had a few minutes at the beginning of class today, discussing how to have on-line group discussions, while still respecting FERPA rules. It was decided that about the only medium that would work for everybody was e-mail, so I created an e-mail discussion list.  Currently, this list is invitation-only, but we’ll add mentors to it as needed.  If there are regular readers of the blog who would like to participate in the student discussions, comment on this post requesting to be added, giving some information that I can share with the class.  I’ll forward your request to the class, who will decide collectively whether adding you would benefit them.

As soon as that discussion was over, we followed our tour guides over to one of the buildings that contains bioengineering labs.  We were supposed to have 3 tour guides for 3 labs, but none of the tour guides had responded to my e-mail over the weekend.  One showed up, another was replaced by someone else from the same lab, and the third I still haven’t heard from.  As it turned out, we didn’t really even have time for the two labs, so I’ll probably have to schedule another tour later on.

The first lab we toured was for a brand-new faculty member in protein engineering.  The tour guide was a senior doing a senior thesis in chemistry, and she gave us a good description both of the work she was doing and of the various equipment in the lab, which was all fairly generic molecular biology equipment (incubators, freezers, centrifuges, vortexers, electrophoresis boxes, gel viewer, ultrapure water source, PCR machines, pipetters, …).  The only really specialized piece of equipment was an HPLC machine for purifying proteins.  She demonstrated the tiny amounts of liquid that are handled, by showing her smallest pipetter (2µl max) and demonstrating how to use a different pipetter, putting a 9µl drop of water on the bench top (which people could barely see).

This was an excellent first lab to tour, as almost every procedure done in the lab is one that the students on the biomolecular track will do themselves many time (only the HPLC and the protein gels are specialized), so all the tools are ones the students will learn to use.

Next we went to the lab where samples are prepared for DNA sequencing.  There was nothing much new there—again it was all standard molecular biology equipment.  That went quickly, and we moved over to the nanopipette labs.  Because the rooms were so small and there were two undergrads willing to talk about their work, we split the class in half, with one group seeing the grad students and postdocs (the main lab space) and hearing a bit about the point of the projects, and the other group getting a demo of making the nanopipettes and hooking one up to the electronics to record the response to a sine wave.  We then swapped groups, so everyone got both.  We ran out of time before seeing the DNA sequencing machines and never had time to try to hunt down someone from the nanopore lab for a tour there.

The people in the labs were very gracious about having their work interrupted and the tour guides were enthusiastic about the work they were doing.  The freshmen asked good questions about how to get into research positions.  Both the tour guide and I had similar advice for students—read the posters on the walls (many of which are undergrad projects), read faculty web pages, come to the weekly departmental research talks, and ask faculty if you can sit in on their lab group meetings.  These things seem obvious to us, but freshmen are new to the university—several did not even know that faculty had weekly lab group meetings!

Overall, I think that the lab tours went well and were successful at what they tried to do.  I’ll have at least one more tour for the labs in the biomed building—hopefully stressing things that are different there (flow cytometry, hyperthermophiles, stem cells, …).

On Wednesday, though, it is back to doing a design exercise.  We’ll try the spectrometer exercise again, now that students have had a chance to learn on their own about spectrometers, and I’ll scaffold the “systems thinking” of dividing a complex system into communicating subsystems.

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