Kicking off virtual fall teaching

Department Announcement
Posted on September 14, 2020

Heather Thieringer, senior lecturer in molecular biology, with science kits ready to be sent to Princeton students for at-home experiments. (Photo by Bettina Wittler)

“Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology” is required for concentrators in molecular biology and ecology and environmental biology. It satisfies the biology requirement for entrance into medical school. This fall, 95 students are enrolled in the course, which includes lectures, precepts and weekly lab reports.

The course is about important concepts and elements of molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics and cell biology are examined in an experimental context. It is being taught by Dan NottermanHeather Thieringer and Karin McDonald

Dan Notterman, senior research scholar and lecturer with the rank of professor in molecular biology, said:

“Molecular biology is key to understanding both viral infections such as COVID-19 and the methods used to prevent and treat this disease. We think of MOL 214 as a first step in teaching and producing the next generation of biomedical researchers and clinicians. It is that generation, our students, who will use these molecular tools in a way similar to those who eradicated polio in an earlier time.

“We are all learning about remote learning and have worked very hard to bring our students an interesting course about which they can be passionate.” 

“The McGraw Center developed a set of Design Templates which were extremely helpful as we thought about how to teach the lab component of MOL 214. I looked at each lab experiment we normally performed with the students in person and determined what we wanted the students to learn from each one. That helped guide us in how to transform the labs for online instruction. Some labs focus on understanding scientific concepts and data analysis and they transition well to a virtual lab, other labs are more about gaining skills so we developed ‘do-at-home’ versions of these labs for students to have some hands-on experience. Both the McGraw Center and Environmental Health and Safety were extremely helpful as we went about developing the kits and determining what could easily and safely be done at home.

“It was quite a project to undertake this summer. First we had to test out the actual experiments, to make sure they would work. To factor in shipping time, the lab staff would then leave all the components out at room temperature for four or five days to make sure the experiments would still work. They also were extremely creative is coming up with ways to pack all the components. Development of these MOL kits both for the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) earlier this summer and for MOL 214 would not have been possible without the creativity and hard work of the Schultz Teaching Lab staff: Deanne Kennedy, Bettina Wittler and Cara Giordano.

“The FSI MOL mini-course I taught with Dr. Jodi Schottenfeld-Roams for two weeks this summer was a great experience itself, and it also was a good trial run for us for sending kits. There were 18 students in the mini-course (all in the continental U.S.) and we sent kits to the students to allow for a hands-on introduction to the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology and Gene Regulation. MOL 214 has 95 students enrolled including international students so we are certainly scaling up for the fall semester.  

“We learned that the students really enjoyed doing the hands-on experiments and gaining skills like micropipetting. Being able to accurately transfer small volumes is essential to most research labs in molecular biology. We will be assessing student experiments via Zoom and asking students to make videos of their results which they will share with their lab section.  

“Some component in the kits are to be sent back to Princeton at the end of the course. One thing we learned was to include packing tape in the kit when we send it out — which will make sending it back easier for the students!

“The kits include a micropipette, tips and food coloring along with fun activities that allow them to practice this skill. They also contain all the components necessary to do two experiments that allow students to investigate transcription and translation in a cell-free system. Students will be able to monitor and record the production of RNA and protein using a LED viewer that uses just a 9 volt battery.   

“​I would love to thank Kate Stanton for her guidance and advice this summer. Also, overall, McGraw ran a bunch of workshops from how to teach on Zoom to how to record videos that were very helpful in getting ready for this semester.” 

Karin McDonald

Karin McDonald, lecturer in molecular biology, prepares her home workspace for teaching virtual small-group sessions.


Karin McDonald, lecturer, molecular biology, said:

“I share an office with my daughter who’s entering third grade. I’ll be using a white board for small group work in the MOL 214 precepts. In the classroom, I like to draw things on the board with students during precepts and this has been particularly challenging to replicate with virtual teaching. I’m hoping to overcome this challenge using a physical white board in my Zoom background and an iPad with pencil when drawings and figures are helpful for the course material. The McGraw Center conducted useful workshops over the summer that helped me to implement other teaching tools to increase student engagement, such as Mentimeter and shared Google Docs during breakout rooms. It was extremely useful to experience these training sessions from the perspective of a student.

“During the spring, I regularly hosted Zoom meetings and created breakout rooms for students to work in small groups. I had not, however, experienced breakout rooms as a student. It was useful to see the difficulties students experience on the other side of my meetings. For example, as a host I can send students messages while they are in the room, but I didn’t realize that these messages flash pretty quickly on the screen and then disappear. The McGraw training reinforced how helpful it is to have clear directions with goals in writing at the start of meetings to keep our virtual class on track and everyone onboard with the group work.”

In addition, the McGraw Center has assisted remote learning in several fields.