When Hawra Aljawad made her 2020 summer plans, the idea was to take one class and conduct research. Then came coronavirus. With campus essentially shutting down in spring and undergraduates unable to work in labs, Aljawad, a junior studying chemical and biological engineering, pivoted.
“I had to be flexible with my plans,” says Aljawad. “Activities and socializing became limited, and I couldn’t gain lab experience. So, I chose to take more classes and focus on finishing some degree requirements.”
One of the classes she decided to take was Biochemistry 501: Introduction to Biochemistry. The online summer course fulfilled the advanced biology elective needed for her degree, and a friend who had taken the class encouraged her to sign up.
Biochemistry 501 is a three-credit course that is offered every semester. The overarching goal of the course is to foster an understanding of how life works at a molecular level. Students explore how proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids are used in various cellular processes. A popular—and required—class for a variety of majors, attendance during the school year, when the class is typically offered in-person, can exceed 600 students many semesters. For the online course in summer of 2020, more than 250 students enrolled.
“Enrollment keeps going up. Last summer, the first time we offered it, enrollment was around 100. In 2020 it shot way up to around 260 students,” says Richard Amasino, professor of biochemistry and a Biochem 501 instructor along with Sam Butcher and Mario Pennella.
Students have access to the entire course right away and can watch pre-recorded lectures at any time. Quizzes and exams are provided at intervals during the summer. Several resources and discussion platforms are also supported. These include discussion boards, such as Piazza, where students can ask questions and instructors can respond.
Another platform used in the course is PeerWise, a discussion board for students. “We used Peerwise to reflect on quiz questions,” says Justin Baerwald, a junior chemical engineering student who took the summer course, “We could answer questions developed by other students and ask our own as practice.” The 501 instructors believe that creating and critiquing exam questions is a valuable learning experience for students, and they use some of these student-written questions for the exams.
The instructors also consider conversation and interaction an important part of the online course. They hold a discussion section every day during the summer session. Grad students and undergraduate peer mentors also provide additional discussion sections, and many former undergraduate students come back to help current classes.
“Many of our TAs are undergrads who have done well in the course the semester before who join our peer mentor program, and they do a great job,” says Amasino. “They’re proud of the fact that they did well, enjoyed the course and most importantly want others to have that same experience.”
Students taking the course come from many places – different colleges within the university and even some students from other universities looking to take a course from UW–Madison during their summer break. For Baerwald, Biochem 501 was a course requirement, and one he was happy to complete during the summer.
“I took this course so I could focus on more core classes during the school year,” he says. “And this was definitely a class built for online studies. The instructors were very good and extremely willing to help, and if anyone had questions, they gladly answered them in office hours and discussion sections.”
While both Baerwald and Aljawad took the course to fulfill requirements, as many students do, they came away with much more than just a checkmark on their to-do list.
“I have learned a lot from the course, and I especially enjoyed the last unit, which was mainly about genetics,” says Aljawad. “I had learned in a previous genetics class the different repair mechanisms in the case of a mutation during replication. But in this class, I learned how certain enzymes are capable of such repair mechanisms. I learned the chemistry behind it.”
For Baerwald, the course will give him a strong foundation as he moves forward in his college career and beyond. “This class will give me a wider range of knowledge to tackle problems I might run into in the future,” he says. “It will also allow me to better understand the research that I am doing.”
While Aljawad didn’t get the opportunity to do the research she was hoping last summer, she took advantage of the changes brought on by the pandemic. And in her unexpected schedule, she found some unforeseen advantages.
“I’m grateful that all the professors were understanding and flexible,” says Aljawad. “It shows that they’ve tried their best to provide students with the best experience even with classes being online. I really enjoyed this course.”