As Virginia Tech nears two months since the beginning of fall classes, faculty continue to adapt how they teach — and in some cases are finding silver linings to the pandemic’s dark cloud.

Take Kristopher Hite, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Biochemistry. He teaches a departmental first-year experience class for freshmen and transfer students, an undergraduate research project on recombinant DNA technology, and a capstone lab course for juniors and seniors.

The lab course, Biochemistry 4124, is crucial for biochemistry majors as an assessment class that gives them hands-on experience with concepts they’ve built over prior courses, including general and organic chemistry, general biochemistry, and biochemical calculations.

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“It really is a test of all their accumulated knowledge and skills they’ll need to go to graduate school, industry, or a government,” Hite said. “It’s an important class with a long legacy. It’s very special to the department. For me as a junior instructor, it’s an opportunity to apprentice under senior faculty."

The lab is typically divided among sections of up to 24 students. Because of physical distancing restrictions, this fall has seen that number cut in half to 12. In Hite’s section, most students are on track for fall graduation, which underlines its importance as a course. The reduced number means that Hite is able to focus his attention more on individuals.

To implement the pandemic protocols, the department invested in buying new equipment for students. Ultraviolet-visible (UV-Vis) spectrophotometers are important diagnostic tools that are frequently used in the lab.

Previously, students had shared UV-Vis spectrophotometers, which took up a 3-foot-by-4-foot space on the bench, and also required a computer and monitor. Now, each student has their own instrument, which have advanced significantly. The new models are less than half the size of the old ones, and have touchscreens and USB ports that eliminate the need for a computer hook-up.

“They’re working out really well,” Hite said. “Each student is getting a ton of hands-on experience ‘seeing’ enzymes function by collecting data from these spectrophotometers. They can observe their own errors. And they’re constantly getting feedback from the instructor on doing this right, doing this wrong.”

Students in BCHM 4124 benefit enormously from the in-person experience.

“It’s the difference between an architect and builder,” Hite said. “If I were to do it for them and just hand them the data, they wouldn’t learn that iterative process of improvement — for example, being careful when using the pipette to inject a certain volume of reagent into a cuvette. I just don’t think you can achieve the same amount of value in terms of hands-on skills in a lab class like this with online modules.”

But that’s not the case in every class. Take Hite’s first-year experience course, which is split between two sections of 68 and 73 students. When the semester began, Hite taught the course in a hybrid format, with some students attending in-person and others online. The classroom in Engel Hall could previously house all of the students in a given section, but because of physical distancing protocols, that number dropped to 18.

That split wasn’t working well in practice, so the university shifted it entirely online three weeks in. Hite said that shift has made the class much better.

“First-year experience is not so content heavy — it’s more to foster a sense of community with the department and university,” Hite said.

While it might seem like building community makes more sense for an in-person environment, physical distancing requirements and the in-person/online split made that difficult. The online version uses breakout rooms that facilitate small-group conversations in a way that appears to be succeeding.

“I can tell that in the majority of my breakout rooms, there’s some real bonding going on,” Hite said. “There’s more of a sense of community in the class.”

Each group consists of eight to 10 students, along with a peer mentor — an undergraduate who has previously taken the course and is paid to facilitate discussions and support Hite in making class materials and operating Zoom. Hite said he’s noticed that not only are the small groups in the class bonding, but the 12 peer mentors are doing so as well.

The pandemic has changed Hite’s undergraduate research course entirely. Previously, he’d worked with students to use skills they had developed in class to clone genes and discover new protein-protein interaction in plants.

“For the last three semesters, I’ve had juniors and seniors going through this lab and using skills learned in the lab course to further this research,” Hite said. “This [fall] semester, I’ve tried to strategize and think about how I could continue to do undergrad research but not have them in the lab.”

He landed on the idea of working with undergraduate researchers to study how to improve the first-year experience course. They’re testing how best to divide the students into the small groups. Is it best to use a algorithm-driven software program, to sort them randomly, or to let students self-select their small groups?

So Hite is not only learning and adjusting his teaching protocols as the semester progresses, but finding ways to give students research experience while also engaging them in the active process of improving instruction in the pandemic era.

— Written by Mason Adams

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