Bioengineering faculty transitions to online teaching

4/6/2020 Huan Song

Illinois Bioengineering professors and TAs share tools and techniques to help everyone adjust to online classes.

Written by Huan Song

Over the past few weeks, millions of people around the world have had to adjust to digital teaching and learning. Faculty members and Teaching Assistants (TAs) in the Bioengineering department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have also made this transition over the students' spring break week.

Andrew Smith, an associate professor of Bioengineering and the Associate Head of Undergraduate Programs shared, "we are lucky that we have very engaged faculty at all levels and we have TAs who are deeply committed to students."

Many faculty members have also had previous experience with using online tools to supplement in-person classes. Teaching Associate Professor Jennifer Amos, for example, first taught a course using Zoom six years ago during her Fulbright Fellowship at the École Centrale de Lille in France. She is using Zoom to continue teaching the Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) courses BIOE 575 Team Project capstone, a module on instrumentation in BIOE 572 Biological Measurements II, and a technical communications course through the Grainger College of Engineering.

"For me, most of my classes are asynchronous and I’m able to capture my lectures ahead of time." She continued, "I want to make the lectures accessible especially for those who are using their phones for the internet. I don’t want that to be a burden."

The M.Eng. program is in the process of launching an online degree. "It’s interesting timing since we were just about to start recording courses and trying to figure out how to do the capstone online for next year. Now we are doing it online for this year," continued Amos. "We will definitely use what we’ve created now for the future [program]."

Amos published an editorial titled, "How Social Distancing Brought Us Closer as a BME Community" in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, with additional resources for those who teach in BME to move lectures, labs, and design projects online. 

Bioengineering Professor Brad Sutton who primarily teaches BIOE 420 Introduction to Biological Control Systems, has also been recording videos from home which he uploads to Media Space. "This is a class that relies on a lot of data and doing a lot of mathematical operations that you wouldn't have been able to use paper and pencil for." Sutton has already resolved some early issues with students regarding printing and time zones. Although the transition is still early, Sutton does not anticipate too much will need to change.

Several professors in the department including Sutton have used Gradescope for the past few years. "It makes it really easy for me and the person grading to collaborate electronically and leave notes for each other without passing papers back and forth. It's really easy for the students as well," said Sutton.

Creating virtual labs has been a challenge during this rollout. Teaching Assistant Professor Karin Jensen who instructs BIOE 202 Cell & Tissue Engineering Lab, tackled this enormous task with the help of her undergraduate TAs. "We made a virtual lab practical," said Jensen. "Students can watch someone perform parts of an experiment and critique their technique as a short answer response." Canvas also serves as a discussion board for students to remotely engage with each other.

Additionally, the TAs have created a hemocytometer simulator in MATLAB. "Students would get a hemocytometer image as they would on a microscope; they have to evaluate and perform calculations based on the cell image to simulate what they would do when looking at the cells under the microscope," explained Jensen. She plans to also be available on Zoom during her normal class times as another communications touchpoint with students.

Jensen particularly wanted to recognize TAs Benjamin David and Faisal Masood who are graduating seniors in the department. "They have been phenomenal students and have been very creative and doing fantastic work during this critical time," she commended.

As for these students, "This experience has been very surreal. At first, it was definitely a very abrupt transition," said Masood. "Although it is unfortunate that I will not be able to spend the rest of my senior year on campus, I am thankful for all the experiences I have already enjoyed [here]." David noted, "as students ourselves, we have helpful insights into what may or may not work. In reality, there is no substitute for the in-lab experience, but we are trying our best to find creative ways to present the most important information (without all the pipetting!)"

Masood offered this word of advice to fellow students, "stay positive in these frustrating times and pay even more attention to your classes than normal." David added, "it will be extremely important to communicate with the instructors. Their goal is to get everyone on the same page!"

The faculty urges everyone to remain flexible and adaptable. At the end of the day, "the message that I want the students to hear is that we care about you," said Jensen. "We are going to miss you in class and we are here to support you in any way we can."

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This story was published April 6, 2020.