Document Actions

You are here: Home Online Magazine teaching & learning Measuring Pipettes and Bacterial …

Measuring Pipettes and Bacterial Cultures

In this online summer semester, about 200 biology students at the University of Freiburg are learning laboratory skills and techniques on their computer screens

Freiburg, May 06, 2020

Measuring Pipettes and Bacterial Cultures

Photo: Harald Neumann

With the click of a button, students can now join the teaching assistant (TA) Astrid Steindorf in the lab. Dressed in a white lab coat, she has assembled two flasks on the lab table. Next to them, the red rubber tubing of the Bunsen burner snakes across the table. Steindorf explains how to practice sterile technique in the lab, and we could almost believe that students are really there with her. But they’re not. The TA is talking to them remotely from the lab. Although the coronavirus is making students and teachers unable to conduct lab experiments together, biology students at the University of Freiburg can still earn credit for laboratory hours this online summer semester 2020.

Ready for the virtual lab: Astrid Steindorf explains how to practice sterile technique. Photo: Harald Neumann

Laboratory work is an essential part of the natural sciences. Sonja-Verena Albers is a professor of microbiology at the University of Freiburg. Among other things, she’s responsible for the Basic Module 14 (Grundmodul 14), which bachelor students in biology must take in their fourth and fifth semesters. Every year, about 200 students complete the course, which follows a strict syllabus. This includes lectures in microbiology, immunobiology, and biochemistry, as well as lab work in microbiology in the first six weeks of the semester. According to Albers, the goal is for students to learn all the skills and techniques necessary for working in a lab. Because of Covid-19, however, everything has been turned upside down. “It had to be turned upside down,” Albers said, adding: “Otherwise, my students would have had to wait a whole year to take the course.” And nobody wants that.

Learning sterile technique

Within three short weeks, ideas were formulated, materials assembled, and lectures recorded. About 25 lab experiments were also photographed and filmed, including sterile technique and experiments involving growing cultures of bacteria. Looking back, Albers said that coming up with everything was a little stressful, but it was well worth it. Students are very happy to be able to attend the module this semester, like Miriam Kaltwasser, who is in her fourth semester of biology. “The materials are great,” she said, adding that she’s learning a lot. Of course, students wish they were able to do things themselves, and sometimes they can, at least sort of. In her video on sterile technique, Steindorf gives students real practical advice. For example, she demonstrates how to handle a measuring pipette lying in a canister in such a way that the tip remains sterile. To replicate this, students use a pencil for the measuring pipette and a paper towel roll with a smaller toilet paper roll stuffed inside as the canister. This helps them to build up the muscle memory of the hand movements – although it’s not quite the same as the real thing, as Kaltwasser said.

All parts of Basic Module 14 will be available on the ILIAS learning platform according to the course syllabus. New lectures are uploaded each week, and the online labs are available on the scheduled days. Of course, students are still quizzed on each lesson in the lab. They have until Sunday evening of the same week to finish the quiz questions.

Before the coronavirus crisis, the labs were different. The students would receive lab descriptions to work on before actually going into the lab. “Students were supposed to come to the lab prepared,” says Albers. The actual experiments were therefore always preceded by a quiz. Now, things have to done in the exact opposite way. After students get information about the upcoming experiment on ILIAS, they can move on directly to the online lab if they want. They’re also quizzed afterward, just like before, only this time online. And what about the lab descriptions? Albers said that students now receive these after the experiment. Otherwise, the final exam will be at the end of semester, as usual.

Students can ask questions anytime

The online module seems to be working well so far. The first post-lab quiz was successful, Albers said, adding that only eight students didn’t take the quiz, and only five failed. Students can ask questions anytime, and an online forum has been established just for this purpose. In the first week of classes, Albers received 18 inquiries. One was from a student asking her to please check a question on his microbiology quiz again. He suspected that his answer was correct, although it was marked wrong in the test, and sure enough, he was right. Albers and her team of course immediately corrected it. At the end of his email, the student thanked her for the online lab, adding that it was working very well and that, even though it was only online, it was still a lot of fun.

Stephanie Streif