An Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant helped to reconfigure biotechnician degree courses for online delivery and imbued two North Central State College educators with knowledge they used to help colleagues cope with the massive curriculum shift required by COVID-19.
In September 2018 Justin Tickhill and Jason Tucker began curriculum revisions funded by the Mansfield, Ohio, college’s first ATE grant from the National Science Foundation to convert six bioscience courses for online delivery of lectures and in-person labs for a specific audience: employees of Charles River Laboratories who wanted to advance in their biotechnology careers.
In March 2020 as COVID-19 forced colleges around the country to cease on-campus operations, Tickhill and Tucker became the go-to guys among their science and health sciences colleagues as they made the quick conversion from in-person to online instruction.
This fall, the General Biology I course and five other hybrid courses that Tickhill and Tucker developed for the Bioscience Technician Expansion Project (Award #1800850)will be available to all North Central students.
“The ATE [program] has benefited our entire college with this one grant—more so than we could have ever imagined,” Tickhill said during a recent phone interview. He is associate professor of biology.
Tucker, an assistant professor and bioscience program coordinator, said ATE support allowed him to work extensively with the college’s instructional designer on the four courses he converted prior to COVID-19. This fresh experience meant Tucker became a leader for the faculty’s “crash course” in how to transfer in-person lessons to online classes.
Tucker said he and Tickhill are not experts in online delivery, but they were the “least deer-in-the-headlights” as the faculty worked on the massive change for 100% online delivery of North Central’s courses.
In the past when North Central instructors wanted to convert a course for online delivery, they would take a semester-long course to learn the intricacies of the college’s learning management system. They would submit learning objectives, assessment strategies, accessibility allocations, etc., a week at a time for review, and wrap up their presentations a semester or even a year in advance of launching the revised course. COVID-19 telescoped the process to one of building the online courses while delivering them.
“We have more experience doing it—and experience is a huge resource—and we have been doling out whatever experience we had thanks to the ATE to benefit the entire college; most directly health sciences. But Jason sits on a college-wide committee about quality matters. I sit on a college-wide committee about assessment that also takes data from those courses,” Tickhill said.
Tucker spent most of the two-week Spring break on campus helping faculty in the physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing and other health sciences departments learn Zoom, Canvas, and other distance learning technologies. Tickhill circulated among the other science faculty members to answer their questions as they prepared virtual lessons, laboratory exercises, and exams.
Kelly Gray, dean of Health Sciences, said both Tickhill and Tucker were leaders during the rapid transition to online delivery of the division’s courses. “Most faculty had little or no experience with online in our division due to the nature of hands-on learning in health majors,” she wrote in an email in which she provided additional details about how the ATE grant helped the college pivot during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The ATE grant set us up for the degree of success we had. Certainly not a seamless transition, but I would not have imagined any better process during this crisis. I believe the confidence in online learning as a result of Justin [Tickhill] and Jason’s [Tucker’s] grant work influenced others to accomplish the transition more smoothly.
“As we transition to fall semester where our lecture courses are online and labs scheduled face-to-face, the courses originally scheduled as hybrid for Charles River Lab employees are hybrid for the college general population as well. Some courses may experience three to four times the anticipated Charles River cohort volume.”
Tucker said he thinks that all of their biotech program and campus-wide assistance efforts have been enhanced by a key decision that he and Tickhill made in 2017 when they were writing the ATE grant proposal.
“We wanted to ensure—we put this in our proposal—that when we developed these courses that we are going to ensure that we are still assessing the lab techniques in a way that is at the same standard as the course meeting in-person,” Tucker said.
Tucker has emphasized the need to maintain standards with colleagues who have sought his advice and those he serves with on the Quality Matters Committee that is checking the plans for more than 40 courses that will be offered online for the first time in fall 2020.
“We can’t do our students a disservice. … We still have to make sure that we are assessing learning objectives to the same rigor as in-person classes,” Tucker said.
Tickhill and Tucker’s work to create online biotech lab courses is rare and new, according to Sandra Porter, principal investigator of the Bridge to Bio-Link’s Future and a member of the leadership team for the InnovATEBIO National ATE Biotech Education Center. To help faculty respond to COVID-19 challenges, Porter gathered online biotech lessons to share with educators nationally on the Bio-Link website.
“Before this spring, some schools offered certain kinds of biotech-related courses online.…The common factor in all those courses was that they were either lecture courses (Quality Control) or they involved online research (bioinformatics).
“It was NOT common practice to teach biotech lab techniques online. Finding alternative ways to teach biotech lab techniques continues to be a challenge,” Porter explained.
Receiving Guidance from Mentor-Connect
Tucker and Tickhill expressed gratitude for the assistance they have received from Elaine Johnson, their Mentor-Connect mentor. Johnson led Bio-Link, the national ATE Center at the City College of San Francisco, for 22 years until her retirement.
“She’s just great all around,” Tickhill said of Johnson. Tucker explained that Mentor-Connect was “a huge resource for us during the development of our proposal and Dr. Johnson has been an invaluable mentor during the tenure of our grant work.”
Mentor-Connect provides and experienced ATE principal investigator to advise faculty teams as they write ATE grant proposals. In addition to periodic conference calls with mentors, Mentor-Connect assists mentees’ proposal writing efforts with webinars on project budgeting and ATE-specific expectations, a digital archive of technical resources, and a summer workshop for more face-to-face discussions with mentors and exposure to the expertise of other faculty involved in the ATE program.