The Teaching Assistant, or the TA, is a vital part of the educational experience at universities across the country. They play a key role in helping to educate students, offering aid to the professor in constructing a successful and positive learning environment. We decided to take a closer look at this role, asking how the TA can differ from institution to institution and how this specifically applies to labs.
Lexi Wachtell is a Biology Labs Teaching and Learning Strategist at Macmillan Learning. Prior to joining Macmillan Learning, she spent several years teaching introductory biology labs at the University of Washington, as well as conducting biology education research with Dr. Scott Freeman. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Washington, where she studied Environmental Science & Terrestrial Resource Management and Marine Biology. We asked Lexi to answer a couple of questions on how the lab space utilizes TAs and how we can support them so they can continue to provide a significant contribution to labs.
1. What is the contribution/difference Teaching Assistants make in a lab program?
To put it simply, lab programs wouldn’t be possible without TAs! TAs are typically in charge of teaching hands-on labs, grading (lab reports, exams, etc.), and providing personalized instruction and feedback to students in a smaller setting. In large courses, TAs can also make a huge difference in students’ sense of belonging in STEM disciplines (which is important because research shows that sense of belonging is critical to students retention in STEM fields). So TAs play a crucial role in lab programs and lab-based courses!
2. How does the Teaching Assistant role differ at institutions across the country?
Broadly speaking, there are a lot of similarities among Teaching Assistant roles across institutions - most TAs will be teaching, holding office hours, and grading assignments. Things that differ are the amount of time allotted toward each category - so TAs at one institution may teach 1 or 2 lab sections each term, while TAs at another institution may teach 3 or 4 lab sections per term. Time spent grading also differs because some courses will use multiple-choice question exams and scantrons (which are very fast to grade or auto-graded), while others will rely solely on open-ended free-response questions (which are very time-consuming to grade). Likewise, some TAs may be in charge of maintaining the course website, from updating content and assignments to handling the grade book. Other TAs may not do this at all, and the course website maintenance will be done by the professor or another staff member. Even within a single institution, the role and workload for TAs in different departments can vary pretty substantially - so a TA’s role in the Chemistry department can be pretty different than a TA’s role in the Biology department.
3. What kind of tasks or activities might a TA be responsible for in a standard day of lab?
TAs set up and clean the lab space, take attendance, teach lab, help run experiments, hold office hours to answer questions (related to lab or lecture content), and grade lab reports. TAs also act as the first line of defense to identify students who are struggling or at-risk and often provide support to students who need help (such as helping students who are struggling, either in the TA’s classroom or with college in general). This is especially common in introductory courses with lots of first-year students, as first-years may not have formed a support system yet - TAs in intro courses have more face-to-face time with students, so it is common for them to take on this support role in addition to their other duties.
4. What kind of technology do you see TAs using in the lab currently? How does it help them?
TAs will sometimes use computers for presentations/lab instructions, or excel and statistics software if the lab requires data entry and analysis. However, there are a lot of labs where computers and other technology are not allowed on the lab bench due to possible exposure to chemicals, spills, and other hazards.
5. How else can we support the Teaching Assistant role and save them time on those tasks so they can provide a more significant contribution to the lab?
One of the first things that come to mind is grading because it can be pretty time-consuming - anything we can do to make grading faster makes a big difference. So would features that would allow TAs to grade lab reports electronically (such as adding comments/specific feedback along with point values). The amount of time spent grading is important because typically TAs are graduate students who are contracted to work for the university for a set number of hours each week. The more time they spend grading, the less time they have for teaching and interacting with students.
TAs are extremely important in the lab space. They play a crucial role in lab programs and lab-based courses. They help with so many different aspects of the educational experience, from teaching hands-on labs to providing personalized instruction and feedback to students. To put it simply, these programs wouldn’t function properly without the TA to help out. So don’t forget to show some appreciation for your TAs!
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When Covid-19 first shut down the world in March of 2020, lab instructors across the country had to scramble to figure out how to adapt their in-person teaching methods to ones completely virtual. Many instructors turned to commercially available solutions, while some took on the initiative to create their own! Here are our top three innovators and what they did to stand apart from the rest.
Ed Lee & Alicia Altemose, Texas A&M University
“Tik Tok Lab Final Exams”
Ed Lee knew the pandemic had heavily impacted the learning process of so many students. From suddenly being sent home, to beginning a new form of education, one that is completed while never leaving your house, Lee recognized the struggle that students were facing. And so he found a way to transform finals into a fun expression of creativity and knowledge! Students were to create a video using Tik Tok, Youtube, or another video format, and submit it to showcase all they had learned throughout the semester. The results? An overwhelming wave of support and enjoyment from students and audiences from the platforms alike!
Sajan Silwal, Southeast Missouri State
“Lab Simulations by Powerpoint”
Professor Sajan Silwal understood that transferring labs to an online format was difficult. Labs were a completely different experience pre-pandemic, so it begged the question of how do we create something for students that will further them academically in these new and unprecedented times? Professor Silwal created three lab simulations from scratch using Powerpoint and custom made animations to help students better interact with the material given. In fact, each simulation was created with a hands on component alongside the visual component, so that students could get the most out of their lab experience.
Andrew Scherbarkov, Georgia Institute of Technology
“Lab Kits, Experiments and Videos for Remote Learning”
How does one reinvent the wheel when so much change is happening all at once? That is what Professor Scherbarkov did for his students over at Georgia Institute of Technology. He created lab kits, procedures, and videos from scratch for his students to complete experiments. They worked on over 50 Electromagnetism experiments over the course of a semester with the assistance of the iOLab device. These labs contained a variety of different elements, including an Introduction, Models, a pre-lab activity, the actual experiment itself as well as an optional post-lab challenge. All of this served to help students absorb the material just as well as if they were in person.
To learn more about the 2021 Lab Innovator Awards, you can visit https://go.macmillanlearning.com/Lab-Innovator-Award-Winners.html
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Teaching lab at the start of the pandemic was a challenge, to say the least. The shutting down of schools, the lack of student engagement due to the more pressing issues of health and safety, it all shook the foundations of reality as we knew it. So what does teaching look like in a post-pandemic world? More specifically, how does this apply to labs? We asked instructors at our 2021 Virtual Lab Summit for their thoughts, let’s take a look at a few different disciplines and the knowledge they have gained through experience.
Instructors found that when comparing in-person classes to those that were fully online, grades were comparable and there wasn’t too much of a difference between the sections! There are several practices that are going to be continued moving forward, especially since online lab sessions are actually growing and demand for them has increased in many courses. They will continue to host online pre-labs, which have been found to be really helpful and are a good use of time and resources to give students more in-lab time. Additionally, they are going to use online course management more, which allows for more transparency for students and in what TAs are doing. Lastly, they discovered how important it is to use group chat tools to keep students engaged and connected.
Biology labs learned pretty quickly that lab sessions should be synchronous and not asynchronous. They found that it keeps students on task and paying attention better. A tool that helped them with this goal was utilizing jamboard and breakout rooms to have higher participation. Because students didn’t have the opportunity to take advantage of open lab time, online resources really helped to supplement their learning. Online resources proved to be a good alternative for make-up labs as well. New hires and TAs found that it helped them to set expectations for the lab, where they flipped lecture sessions and included things like clicker questions. Now that they are back in person, they really appreciate the online resources that they can use outside of class.
Microbiology labs found that there has been a serious disconnect since the pandemic with students that makes it more difficult to discern when they are struggling. This has continued on into in-person studies. Through utilizing studies done at Boston University, they learned how office hours attendance had gone down pre-pandemic, but the pandemic caused a surge in attendance, most likely due to the fact that virtual office hours appear less intimidating for students. Moving forward, it was realized that digital tools can give instructors more insights into how students are doing regardless of if that learning is remote or in-person. Temperature checks were also discovered to be an important part of teaching and learning that gives insights to the instructor on things that need addressing or improvement.
Instructors realized early on that some of the things they usually incorporated into their class, like forgiveness policies, were difficult during pandemic teaching. The LMS gradebook didn’t always cooperate even though they wanted to give students an incentive or reward. One thing they learned from the experience was to use fewer labs and be very intentional about the labs that were being chosen to make sure students get the skills they need. Additionally, instructors started using videos and simulations in the pandemic that they will continue to use moving forward, as it really helps with student preparedness and increases understanding in the lab. Some resources they found extremely helpful in connecting best with students were jamboard, slack, and piazza.
Ultimately, it will take some time to process everything we have done during remote/pandemic/hybrid teaching. Instructors have learned to be more understanding and give more flexibility and grace to the students. Fostering community in the classroom through case studies and discussion allows students to feel more comfortable and able to identify themselves as scientists. And now the real innovations from these lessons we have learned will begin.
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Lucy the Lab Assistant Chip Tips
The Macmillan Learning Lab Solutions team is proud to welcome Lucy the Lab Assistant and her faithful friend, Chip Tips to our Labs team!
Lucy and Chip will serve as our Lab Solutions mascots, working to bring awareness to innovation and accessibility in the STEM lab space. Lucy's Lab Report is our new monthly newsletter where Lucy delivers the latest news in the STEM lab space, and Chip Tips will be delivering tips and tricks for instructors to keep innovating and creating accessible solutions for their students. Look for their adorable faces on campus and at upcoming STEM conferences like HAPS, ABLE and BCCE!
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Pronouns! Have your students introduce themselves by including their pronouns, and request they include them in media and zoom appearances. Allow that recognition that someone may not identify with their external appearance.
When giving examples or sample questions about topics that include the use of a person, remove gendered statements (“she” filled up the cup to the 1 liter line vs. “someone/they” filled up the cup to the 1 liter line). Additionally, use names of people from different cultural backgrounds so more students will see a reflection of themselves in STEM situations.
For inclusivity in smaller classrooms where you include group work, try to place students in group pairings based on incoming preparation. Students tend to divide and conquer group work instead of working together in normal situations. By placing students together with different preparation levels we open the door wider for collaboration in order to understand the materials. This helps to develop a sense of inclusivity and community in the STEM project environment.
Recognizing identity is very important for many STEM students. The social process of identifying with those who have gone before you as it relates to your heritage and background is very important. Include lesser known facts of history by explaining a bit more on the background of figures that include diversity and inclusivity. For example, did you know the chemist John Dalton was color-blind?
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, don’t shy away from addressing issues in the classroom! Foster the notion of rightful presence, where students can bring their knowledge of their community to your classroom. Let them elevate that voice in the context of the concept that they are learning by asking them how it impacts various communities.
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Josie Nardo, now a Post-Doc at Stanford University, is an expert in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts in Chemistry Education. The below videos will help you understand the history of DEI in Physics, Strategies to increase DEI in your classroom, and further resources for exploring these concepts.
The History of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Discipline of Physics
Strategies for Including Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Physics Lab Classroom
Resources for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in STEM classrooms
We at Macmillan Learning are committed to be leaders in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in education. To learn more about our mission and philosophy on DEI, you can visit our Diversity & Inclusion website here: https://www.macmillanlearning.com/college/us/our-story/diversity-and-inclusion
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In Fall 2020, Ed Lee at Texas A&M University found himself pondering giving 6,000 final exams in a pandemic environment that had his students spread across hybrid, in person and online lab courses. How could he keep his final exam consistent across all of the courses and keep his students engaged in the process?
The answer he came up with was to meet them where they are online - TikTok.
Lee and fellow instructor Alicia Altemose challenged their students to produce a TikTok video explaining an everyday concept they learned in their lab or lecture course during the Fall semester. Naming, the project #GIGCHEM, they went to work filming a sample video of Lee measuring the speed of light with a microwave and bar of chocolate. Most students responded enthusiastically, although there was an understandable amount of apprehension about such an innovative final project.
Though students weren’t mandated to use TikTok for their project (they could also use YouTube), most students did. Rising to the challenge, Lee’s students showcased their creativity alongside some of the most important Chemistry concepts they learned over the semester. The results were overwhelmingly positive with over 6.8 million views on TikTok and rave reviews from TAMU Chemistry students.
Not only did this project provide students a fun break from the traditional final exam stress, but it provided a connection between their lives and their studies. Watching their classmates demonstrate real life applications of Chemistry provided students with a connection to both the discipline and their classmates that many had not experienced before. It is unknown whether this will be a permanent addition to the TAMU First Year Program Chemistry curriculum, but they will certainly be doing it again this Spring!
Learn more about the TAMU #gigchem project with quotes and feedback from students here and watch their favorite videos on the TAMU TikTok page .
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Instructors : Welcome to Hayden-McNeil Lab Simulations! Helpful information to get you started in your course is provided below.
Provide one of the following resources to students so they can register.
Student registration instructions will walk students through creating an account, as well as registering for a course.
To post directly in your LMS, download either the syllabus insert or slides for our First Day of Class instructions and make edits so they are specific to your course.
Each lab includes an e-manual and two assignments as options . The Introduction to Lab Simulations provide an overview to navigate within the simulation.
The “SA”, or short answer assignment, must be manually graded while the “MC”, or multiple choice, assignment is auto-graded - assign one, both, or neither.
Lab simulations are linked from the procedure page of the e-manual and open in a new window. Please note that the Evolution and Ecology labs do not include a simulation but cover the topics through images, videos, and/or data analysis.
Viewing, Hiding, and Showing:
Each lab has a section block - all of the labs are initially hidden from student view except Introduction to Lab Simulations . You can identify the hidden items because they appear lighter.
Instructors can Hide or Show lab section blocks and individual items .
If students indicate they cannot access a lab even after unhiding the section block, you may need to unhide individual items.
As an instructor you can View the Course or an Assignment as a Student to confirm everything appears as it should.
Editing and Assigning:
Assign Open / Close Dates and Times or easily make changes to the content in your course .
Edit Assignment Names
Edit your Course
Edit questions in an Assignment
Edit the e-Manual
If you manage multiple sections of students, you may want to create sections.
Create Sections to provide different open/close dates for assignments.
Once sections are set up, assign unique open / close dates (and times) for each assignment and section either using Group Overrides or the Bulk Assignment Updater .
Adding TAs or Adjuncts:
Add Teaching Assistants (TAs), Graders, or Adjunct Faculty so they can grade assignments and access the gradebook, but not make edits to the e-manual or assignments.
They must first follow the account creation process. They do not need to register for a course, but they must create and verify their account.
Have Questions? Contact Customer Support for help .
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