Incorporating Digital Conference Attendance to Enhance Student Engagement in an Upper-level Biology Seminar

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     Caroline Goutte


his past Spring 2020, I taught a seminar on Developmental Genetics (syllabus included below), enrolling 7 students. The shift to remote teaching and learning went better than I expected because Zoom offered some interesting tools I could incorporate into the remote meetings. All students attended and were engaged in our weekly synchronous meetings. As each class meeting was 2 or 2 1/2 hours long, I mixed up the format each time to increase student engagement. Here are some examples of the different class formats I employed:

  • In one session we met for three to four 30-40 minute sessions in which one student presented a research paper and led a discussion, with 10-15 minute breaks in between each presentation (link to anonymized screen shot of Biol 457)
  • During another class session, I facilitated a round-robin discussion with the class in which each student took turns sharing one slide about a key figure from a paper, pointing out connections with other work discussed; the Zoom "share screen" feature made this very smooth.
  • In one class towards the end of the semester, when students were developing their final research proposals, I paired students into breakout rooms partners to make a research pitch to each other for four minutes each. Then I whisked them over to another partner to repeat the process. The rapid moving in and out of breakout rooms was a little jolting, but after five such iterations, they had fine-tuned their research spin and received a range of questions and suggestions from their peers.


screenshot of class zoom session

An unforseen bonus of going remote was brought upon by the fact that the Genetics Society of America's Washington DC Conference, scheduled for late April, also went remote. I jumped on the opportunity to bring a piece of the conference to the students to allow them to connect their knowledge to current ongoing unpublished research in the discipline of developmental genetics. We were able to hear three talks together that were directly relevant to the research topics we had been reading about. To prepare students to engage with these talks, I provided them with the following framing: “I've chosen talks that are particularly relevant for our class, and I think you'll enjoy hearing about some brand new directions of research. I'll ask you to pay close attention to the story that the speakers tell -  All the same themes we've practiced, such as starting with a wide funnel, establishing knowns/unknowns, articulating a question, introducing an approach...etc."  It was particularly fortuitous that one of the speakers was an author they had read pre-COVID19! They enjoyed being able to see and hear the authors live, as well as learning about pre-published results. To me, this was a unique highlight of the course, and as it was something that I could not have done in a normal semester, it represents a real silver lining for both the students and myself.


Genetics Society of America webstie homepage image

In reflecting on the impact of this experience on their learning, one student wrote, "I enjoyed being able to listen to the presentations because it was so neat that I was able to understand some of what the presenters were talking about and explaining! It made everything we were learning seem so relevant and exciting, and it was interesting to see how our learning fit into current research. I had trouble following at some parts because it was moving so quickly, but I truly did think it was fun to see/hear the presentations."