Biology Department rebuilds lab courses to prepare for Fall

Woman sitting and smiling at camera with tablet computer on table

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biology Cathy Samayoa, part of the leadership team of BioSLAM (photo taken in 2019)

More than 60 faculty, staff and students develop remote-ready, diversity-centered lab curricula

From the way we work to the way our society handles law enforcement and racial justice, 2020 has been a year marked by rethinking what’s possible. So why not rethink the way we teach, too? That’s the goal of BioSLAM, or Biology Summer Lab Activity Modification, a weeks-long effort in the San Francisco State University Biology Department to overhaul the lab curriculum — not just to make it up-to-date and ready for remote instruction, but to ensure that courses incorporate racial justice and equity.

“Two things happened at once,” explained Biology Department Chair Laura Burrus. “One was that we had the pandemic and we went to remote learning. And then came a lot of energy around Black Lives Matter, the bubbling up of years of pent-up frustration around the lack of action. It seemed in some ways like a perfect storm. But in some ways, it’s also a perfect opportunity.”

More than 60 members of the department chose to participate, splitting into small groups to develop individual lessons that will translate well to remote instruction and deal with topics where the science of biology intersects with race like health disparities experienced by underrepresented groups in the discipline. The team included not just faculty and staff but graduate teaching assistants like Maria José Pastor, who bring their own unique expertise. “Teaching assistants have a fresh kind of perspective of being able to still identify as a student, still able to relate and empathize,” Pastor explained.

Being involved in BioSLAM has given Pastor the chance to help shape the department’s focus at a time when educators are being forced to expand their thinking about how biology skills are taught. “We can show that science is not just based on coming in and sitting in a lab,” she said. “Now we get to create new lessons that encourage people to think beyond the narrow box of what they presume a scientist is.”

One of Pastor’s own contributions was developing a case study about how climate change will affect everyday people along similar lines, she pointed to a colleague’s lesson where students will learn and analyze data about disparities in access to food and nutrition. While it’s challenging to develop lessons for students when they’re not in a physical lab, she says, it’s also an opportunity to teach students a model of science that involves looking outwards at their communities rather than down into their microscopes.

One reason BioSLAM has been able to accelerate so quickly is that the effort represents a collaboration between several large diversity-focused efforts in the department, including the SF BUILD program and the HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) Inclusive Excellence grant. For instance, SF BUILD Co-Director Audrey Parangan-Smith has been consulting with department groups developing lab curricula to help them incorporate research on health disparities. And Adjunct Assistant Professor Cathy Samayoa (B.S., ’09; M.S., ’11), who until recently was affiliated with SF BUILD, helped incorporate data analysis into the curriculum. “It’s going to be a more inclusive experience for students, and in turn encourage our students to stay in science, if they see science as a solution to the problems that they see in their community,” Samayoa said. “Science is all around us. It’s just really about how we present that to our students.”

For Samayoa and others in the department who have long integrated racial justice into their work, BioSLAM represents a necessary step towards correcting historic wrongs about how science is taught and creating a learning environment inclusive of all students now and after the eventual return to campus. Said Samayoa: “I think it has the potential to be a long-lasting and transformational change, and much needed for our department.”