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Biology lab kits offer students a unique online learning experience

Biology lab technician Sara Harper and visiting biology professor Erin Heller put together lab kits for students taking Heller's zoology course this fall.

Biology lab technician Sara Harper and visiting biology professor Erin Heller put together lab kits for students taking Heller’s zoology course this fall.

The boxes weigh about 10 pounds each and measure more than a foot all the way around. And for a group of Randolph biology majors, they’ll hold a key to their semester.

Those students, enrolled in visiting biology professor Erin Heller’s zoology course, will be receiving the boxes—dissection lab kits put together by Heller and biology lab technician Sara Harper—in the coming days, in preparation for the start of the fall semester next week.

“It’s a zoology course, and dissection is the key thing to do with the labs,” Harper said. “Due to budgeting, I always order the preserved specimens a year ahead of time. So I had specimens on campus already. Erin said, ‘Hey, why don’t we ship them to their homes?’”

Visiting biology professor Erin Heller gets lab kits ready to ship.

Visiting biology professor Erin Heller gets lab kits ready to ship.

Each of the course’s 19 students will be receiving 10 week’s worth of specimens and other supplies to work with at home. They’ll do a different dissection each week, Heller said.

“Some of the weeks have a few different specimens to dissect,” she said, “and some just have one, depending on how complex the organism is.”

Heller is putting together handouts that correspond with each lab, giving students page and diagram numbers to reference in a lab manual they’ll be using this semester. She’ll combine that with her own lecture and demonstration videos, as well as other dissection videos she’s found online.

“It’s really just trying to find the best video we can for each of the dissections.”

Students will have a week to complete their lab, related worksheets, and quizzes, with the option to log into Zoom during assigned class times for more help.

“I’ll be there and can work with them through a dissection,” Heller said. “We might put them in breakout rooms if there are multiple students there, where they can help each other get through it. If they feel comfortable and want to do it on their own time, they have that option. But if they’re a little bit less comfortable, they can still quote unquote show up for class.”

Biology lab technician Sara Harper vacuum seals specimens before putting them into the lab kits.

Biology lab technician Sara Harper vacuum seals specimens before putting them into the lab kits.

The majority of the boxes will be mailed to students, but Harper is also delivering to students who live locally, from Appomattox to Bedford.

Martha King ’21 received her box from Harper earlier this week and said she’s excited to see how they use the kits this semester. “I think it’s amazing how the Randolph biology faculty put these together to give us the best learning experience.”

Harper and Heller said an endeavor like this shows how Randolph’s small size and student-centered approach allows professors to provide a unique online experience for students.

“The reason you come to a school like Randolph is to get that one-on-one, personalized experience,” Harper said. “Erin could have chosen to do virtual dissections, but that’s not the same level of experience. This way, we’re able to offer the same experience they would normally be getting on campus at home, which is essential for our majors.”

 

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