Virtual Resources to Teach Microbiology Techniques and Experiments

Dec. 17, 2020

We can all agree that it is a very difficult time to be an educator at any level right now, especially for traditionally laboratory-based sciences, like microbiology. We asked 90 microbiology educators who participate in ASM’s education listserv to share the most challenging aspects of teaching since March 2020. 
  • “Connecting with students and keeping them from burning out in online courses.”
  • “Keeping my sanity as I learn how to teach online and the MASSIVE time that online teaching takes!”
  • “Having to make multiple plans for the semester (in-person plans, hybrid plans and backup plans if university policy changed).”
  • “Everything.”
The current classroom situation in the United States is far from ideal for undergraduate education, and can frequently change due to quarantines, campus shut-downs and new policy guidelines. Here, we report how microbiology educators have adapted their teaching classrooms and labs since disruptions began in mid-March 2020, and how you can prepare for your next semester.

Microbiology Lab Skills to Teach with Limited Face-to-Face Labs

Some of you may be teaching face-to-face labs under restrictions next semester. Others may start teaching face-to-face labs, but switch to remote teaching if COVID-19 cases rise at your institution. To help you plan, we conducted a survey asking microbiology educators to prioritize which microbiology skills to teach from the ASM Curriculum Guidelines with limited face-to-face labs. Here are how the 7 lab skills ranked: 
Lab Skill Mean Ranking Mode Ranking
Skill 6: Practice safe microbiology, using appropriate protective and emergency procedures. 2.3 1
Skill 2. Use pure culture and selective techniques to enrich for and isolate microorganisms. 2.6 2
Skill 1. Properly prepare and view specimens for examination using microscopy (bright field, and, if possible, phase contrast). 3.0 3
Skill 3. Use appropriate methods to identify microorganisms (media-based, molecular, serological). 3.8 4
Skill 5. Use appropriate microbiological and molecular lab equipment and methods. 4.3 5
Skill 4. Estimate the number of microorganisms in a sample (using, for example, direct count, viable plate count and spectrophotometric methods). 4.9 7
Skill 7. Document and report on experimental protocols, results and conclusions. 5.7 7

These results clearly tell us that microbiology educators not only realize the importance of teaching laboratory safety, but also that, if possible, face-to-face instruction emphasizes safety instruction. The next 2 skills, isolating microorganisms and viewing specimens under the microscope were mostly likely picked because of their importance to being a microbiologist. The lowest ranked skills on the list, estimating the number of microorganisms in a sample and documenting and reporting on experimental protocols, results and conclusions, are the best candidate skills to move to a remote learning environment if face-to-face time is limited. If you are in a situation where you have limited face-to-face instructional time next semester, consider prioritizing lab safety, pure culture techniques and microscopy instruction.

Teaching The Top Lab Skills Remotely

If teaching face-to-face is not an option for you, then you might be wondering what to focus on remotely. We asked survey respondents to list the top microbiology techniques or experiments that undergraduate students need to learn. Here are the top 5, and read on for additional tools to help you implement these techniques or experiments. 
Microbiology Technique or Experiment Number of Responses
Gram stain or staining cells 71
Streaking for isolates 48
Aseptic technique or working with pure cultures 42
Microbiology unknowns experiment 34
Using a microscope 27

If you need to prioritize labs due to constraints on instructional time or access to resources, consider keeping these top 5 lab skills in your curriculum. For Gram stain and staining cells, consider using lab simulations and images, perhaps vetted images in ASM’s Image Gallery. For teaching streaking for isolates and aseptic technique, survey participants mentioned they have successfully used at-home kits mentioned in the Remote Teaching for ASM Microbiology Laboratory Skills and Crafty Microbiology. Several educators endorsed VirtualUnknown Microbiology to teach the classic microbiology unknowns experiment. The fundamental skills of microscopy could be taught by lending school-owned microscopes to students, sending FoldScopes to students or using BioNetwork’s Virtual microscope.
ASM provides a curated collection of resources that may be helpful to microbiology educators, including vetted teaching articles that are published in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education (JMBE) and crowd-sourced ideas for teaching introductory microbiology laboratories. 

Author: Rachel Horak, Ph.D.

Rachel Horak, Ph.D.
Rachel Horak, Ph.D. is a senior education specialist at ASM and is interested in helping educators design significant and effective learning experiences for all undergraduate biology students.