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The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

Biology department changes curriculum for virtual learning and inclusivity

The SF State biology department rebuilt lab courses to facilitate virtual learning and to teach science through a social justice lens
Kyran Berlin
Creators of BioSLAM designed 10 new lab manuals and 120 new activities for remote-learning SF State students to examine biology through a social justice lens. ( Kyran Berlin / Golden Gate Xpress)

This past summer, a team of over 60 members, including administrators, faculty members, staff, graduate teaching assistants and students developed a remote-ready, diversity-centered biology lab curriculum.

The switch to distance learning forced the Biology Department to restructure how dozens of laboratory classes, including experimental and field labs, were facilitated. According to department Chair Laura Burrus, no one was prepared for the sudden pivot from in-person instruction to the remote format seen last spring.

“In biology, we study living things, so touching living things is super important and doing things hands-on is super important,” Burrus said. “So the transfer of [the] laboratory curriculum to remote format was just incredibly challenging.”

The goal of the nine-week-long project, called BioSLAM — Biology Summer Lab Activity Modification — was to rapidly restructure the biology department lab curriculum so that it was not only ready for remote instruction, but also ensured that all courses incorporate racial justice, equity and inclusion.

The curriculum was implemented in the Fall 2020 semester and will continue to be the framework for which the department will structure laboratory courses.                                                                                                                                   

BioSLAM focused on topics where the science of biology intersects with race, from health disparities to genetic diseases. Participants in the project created activities to teach biology through a social justice lens. The end result was 10 redesigned lab manuals consisting of 120 new activities that will engage a diverse group of more than 2,000 students, both biology majors and nonmajors, each semester. 

One activity explores how communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, giving students the opportunity to analyze COVID-19 sequence data. Other activities include student analysis of their own physical traits, data on genetic diseases. Additionally, students can study the use of forensic evidence and DNA testing in exonerating racially profiled and wrongfully convicted individuals.

Julie Tran, a transfer student at SF State, took BIOL 210 General Microbiology and Public Health this past fall. While Tran enjoyed the lecture portion of her course, she felt that the lab portion was lacking due to the online format

“For [the] lab, it was kind of difficult just because we weren’t able to go in person to actually do the experiments,” Tran said. “I feel like if I were to go in person to do whatever experiment we’re doing, I wouldn’t know how to actually do it, because it was just virtual.”

Despite the absence of hands-on learning, Tran liked the course and felt like she learned the fundamentals of microbiology.

“I do feel like I understand the core concepts,” Tran said. “Like if someone were to ask me basic questions about microbio, I feel like I’d be able to answer the essentials.”

Burrus explained that since the curriculum was already being revamped to accommodate online learning, the department decided to leverage some of the energy around the Black Lives Matter inspired movements and anti-racism efforts that had accumulated over the summer to intentionally focus on racial justice and equity.

“Biology has always kind of prided itself on wanting to welcome in students from all backgrounds, but we’ve always known that, you know, there’s always more work to do,” Burrus said.

Although SF State boasts a culture of social justice and diversity, higher education in general is notoriously plagued with systemic anti-Black racism, especially in STEM fields. 

A 2019 study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that while 19% of white students and 18% of Black students declared a STEM major, 58% of those white students will earn a degree in the field, compared to 34% of Black students.

Analisa Brown, a former STEM coordinator for the Metro College Success Program and instructor at SF State, conducted research on the experience of Black students in the SF State biology department in 2015.

Brown facilitated a focus group where Black students shared stories about their experiences in STEM at SF State. Based on her findings, Brown shared several recommendations of actionable steps the department could take to make Black, Indigenous, People of Color students’ experiences more positive. Key points included in her recommendations were the representation of BIPOC in subject matter, cultural competency and collaboration between students and staff of all backgrounds.

“I’m pleased that folks were listening to me, and listening to that data,” Brown said. “I think it’s really powerful, where you can provide such data to scientists, because it kind of opens their eyes.”

Individual instructors like Brown have often incorporated diversity, equity and inclusion into their lessons, but the goal of BioSLAM was to make lasting department-wide changes.

Tran said she did not feel like her course material was overtly diversity-centered, but that the classroom environment was welcoming and inclusive to all.

Burrus and Brown are hopeful that BioSLAM will be a good foundation for furthering inclusion efforts in STEM as well as a model that provides the groundwork for other universities to develop their own equity-focused curriculum.

“I think BioSLAM definitely was a step in the right direction, to really do a curriculum overhaul,” Brown said. “It shows through the commitment of the faculty and staff and the students who went through that intensive overhaul that okay, student voices are being heard.”

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About the Contributor
Kyran Berlin
Kyran (she/they) is a returning member of the Xpress staff as Online Editor. She transferred to SF State mid-pandemic from her hometown of Albuquerque, NM, and is currently living in Los Angeles. They are an avid podcast consumer and creative writer, but most enjoys reporting on LGBTQIA+ issues, arts, social justice and criminal justice reform.

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Biology department changes curriculum for virtual learning and inclusivity