The Nematode Dilemma: Experimenting with Virtual Labs | St. Lawrence University

The Nematode Dilemma: Experimenting with Virtual Labs

In her Drugs and the Brain course, Ana Estevez, associate professor of biology and psychology and current holder of the Sarah Johnson '82 Professorship in the Sciences, teaches students how to grow and maintain nematode worms. Later in the semester, they use these worms to conduct experiments and study the effects of drugs on invertebrate nervous systems. 

In the age of COVID-19, the remote learning model poses a special challenge to lab-based science courses like Estevez’s. Without her careful guidance, the proper equipment, or the hands-on experience, cultivating nematodes for experimentation from home is out of the question. The solution? Replace real nematodes with hypothetical ones.  

“When students are actually carrying out the experiment, the study they propose has to be very contained because they don't have that much time in the lab,” says Estevez. “Because of the shift to remote learning, they were able to propose a lot more complex projects than they would have if they had to carry them out in person.”

Free from time constraints in the lab, students could explore a myriad of variables—different sets of mutant strains or concentrations of drugs not typically available to them—with more intricately designed experiments. When students sent in their proposals, Estevez made up datasets for them to analyze for their final projects. 

“Coming into the lab, checking in on the worms, actually doing the experiment and collecting the data. I missed that. But there were other advantages,” she says.

Now, Estevez, a member of St. Lawrence's Faculty Development Committee, is attending virtual enrichment courses, organizing opportunities for faculty, swapping best practices with colleagues, and trying out new technologies to build on what she learned last semester and discover more of the advantages of remote learning.  

One of the finds that most excites her is a platform called Milanote, which helps students break down and organize complicated concepts on visual boards. 

“A lot of the science that I cover can seem very complex. Now I can say ‘Okay, you just learned this, shut everything down, make a concept map of how you think these things relate.’ Right away, I'm going to use this a lot in my class,” she says.

Estevez has also learned of ways to embed questions into pre-recorded lectures that require answers from students before continuing and, through a training organized by the Faculty Development Committee, learned how to maximize capabilities of Sakai (St. Lawrence’s chosen educational software, which helps instructors and students create websites that support teaching, research and collaboration) to provide a more engaging student experience. 

Though the COVID-19 pandemic forced faculty members to transition to remote learning abruptly in the spring, Estevez believes it has allowed them to experiment with innovative new approaches to instruction and to invest in professional development that will serve them for the rest of their careers.

“I've learned a lot of things that I can use face to face or online,” she says. “It seems daunting, but this huge leap is going to be great for my teaching moving on.”