Biotechnology Teaching Online: A New Way to Look at Scientific Notebooks

This post is written by guest blogger, Peter Kritsch MS, Adjunct Instructor BTC Institute.

When I was in the middle of my junior year in high school, my family moved. We had lived in the first state for 12 years. I had gone to school there since kindergarten. Although it wasn’t a small district, I knew everybody and, for better or worse, everybody knew me. Often the first reaction I get when I tell people when we moved is that it must have been hard to move so close to graduation. The reality is . . . it really wasn’t. In fact, it was quite liberating. See, I didn’t have to live up to anybody else’s expectations of who I was based on some shared experience in 2nd grade. I had the opportunity to be who I wanted to be, to try new things without feeling like I couldn’t because that wasn’t who I was supposed to be. 

As long as I refrained from beginning too many sentences with “Well at my old school . . . “ people had to accept me for who I was in that moment, not for who they perceived me to be for the previous 12 years. Now, the new activities were not radically different. I still played baseball and still geeked out taking AP science classes, but I picked up new activities like golf, playing basketball with my friends, and even joined the yearbook. I know . . . “radically different.”  The point is that the new situation allowed me to try something new without worrying about what had always been. 

Peter teaches about biofuels in his virtual classroom.

The pandemic has forced a lot of us to move our classrooms online. In a short period of time, everything changed about how education was done. Our prior teaching experience, including the experience I had with doing blended learning (ooops . . . “back at my old school”), was helpful to a point.  But we quickly found out that being completely virtual was different. And as science teachers, how do you do more than just teach concepts when online? How do you help students to continue engaging in the crucial parts of science – observing, questioning, designing, analyzing, and communicating?

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Skype a Scientist While You Stay at Home

A few weeks into Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order, I saw a tweet from Sarah McAnulty, PhD, the founder and Executive Director of Skype a Scientist, proclaiming that the organization was making a big change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—they were allowing groups smaller than five people to sign up, meaning that families stuck at home during the pandemic could meet a scientist virtually in their living room.

Skype a Scientist provides an easy way to for people to meet a scientist and allows scientists to reach people from all over the world without having to leave the lab. Teachers (and now families) can choose the type of scientist that is a good fit, from computer scientists to marine biologists and everything in between. You can also request a scientist from a group that is underrepresented in STEM fields so that participants can see a scientist who looks like them or can relate to their experiences.

I learned about Skype a Scientist a few years ago after listening to an episode of the HelloPhD podcast. I remember wishing this program had existed when I was a high school science teacher, so I was ecstatic to learn it was now possible to participate and immediately filled out the online application for our family to be matched with a scientist. We received our match the next day and scheduled a call with our scientist the following week.

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