Wednesday, February 23, 2022
By Jennifer Keefe
Laura D’Alessio, professor, biology, sees her role in the classroom as less of an instructor and more as a curator, leading her students from wherever they are when they first come into the classroom toward advanced knowledge in scientific literacy, research methods, and even race and gender inequities in the sciences.
“Teaching is curating an academic experience,” Laura explains. “I design the work, trying to determine what to cover and how deep to cover it.”
She takes the skill level of her audience into consideration as well, she says, “Taking all the variables and weaving them together into tapestry of the semester.”
Laura is in year five of her tenure process.
She believes that, as she teaches, creating a system of order and transparency helps lead students to the next logical step in understanding biology.
Laura considers her teaching style to be more coaching and facilitating, rather than just lecturing.
She also believes communication is key when it comes to student success. She uses an app called Discord, instead of relying on Canvas and email to
communicate with students.
“It creates a very nice community a lot of students are familiar with,” Laura explains.
The idea to use Discord actually came from her students, one of whom had already set up a channel for the class.
After watching and learning herself, Laura set up a channel for her classes the following semester. Today, she sees it as, “A really effortless communication platform where students can bring their authentic selves to the virtual classroom.”
Once the semester ends, students have the option to stay in the class channel as new students come in and to become mentors for the new students.
Laura also uses some other tools to communicate with students. She uses the Microsoft Bookings app to allow students to make appointments online. In addition to appointments for office hours, she requires each student to meet with her over Zoom for 15 minutes within the first two weeks of class.
She is also able to give immediate feedback to students on her pre-lab quizzes using the app ZipGrade.
Instead of using HonorLock, which is available through Canvas, Laura also self-proctors exams for online students by having them sign up for a time to take the exam over Zoom. Proctoring 16 students at a time, she has them complete room scans, just like HonorLock, but she’s able to talk with the students before they start the test and after they finish it. Using this time, she also provides immediate, individualized feedback.
Laura’s action research project focused on student skills in scientific literacy, scientific reasoning and research, all areas she had identified as problem points for past students.
“Scientific literacy, scientific reasoning and research are skills-based, and they need to be practiced for students to improve,” Laura says.
She describes her project as being “very meta” in that it was an action research project about scientific research, meaning the project was “wrapped up in itself,” and she was “doing to her students what she was teaching them to do.”
What she did was assess each student’s skill level when starting her level-one biology classes through a specific module she built in Canvas. As students mastered each of the five parts of the module, the next one opened. By the end, the students were ready to perform in a face-to-face lab.
Laura deemed her action research project a success, but she says she will be scaling it back and streamlining it for future classes.
“It was big. It was just a really big intervention,” Laura explains. “Hindsight it (the individualized student assessment along with teaching 24 contact hours) was too much.”
Laura also incorporated some other projects into her three-part tenure portfolio. One was about embedding sensitive topics into the biology curriculum, such as current events like race and gender issues and inequities in the context of science.
Laura started implementing this project in spring 2020, just before classes moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She had her students write names of scientists they knew on the classroom white board. The students recognized some similarities, such as the fact that most were pre-1900 European men or post-1900 American men and all were white.
Most students didn’t even know what the scientists had contributed and some thought at least one female scientist was a man.
This exercise led to a reflective writing assignment and a conversation about the lack of diversity in the sciences and how they, as students, can help change the racial and gender makeup of the scientific community.
Laura also inadvertently had a hand in changing how future tenure class members will submit their portfolios.
When she started having trouble writing her own portfolio in a Word document or OneNote, the two previous methods for portfolio submission, she created her own Canvas sandbox and dedicated individual pages in Canvas to the sections of her portfolio.
This method meant a lot less scrolling back and forth to look for information and allowed her to “write in an unrestricted kind of way,” she explains.
It turns out, they had been looking for a better way for tenure candidates to submit their portfolios.
Laura worked with Professor of Speech Karen Borglum to create the five-year template for the tenure portfolio in Canvas.
Do you know a faculty member doing great work? Or, perhaps you’d like to share the work you’re doing? Send the colleague’s (or your) name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu and include Faculty Highlight Nomination in the subject line of your email. We might just feature your colleague (or you) as an upcoming Faculty Highlight.