Innovative in-person lab provides unique opportunity for ASU Online students

 the first cohort of online B.S. Biochemistry degree students came to the Arizona State campus to take part in a new, innovative in-person accelerated laboratory course

The first cohort of online biochemistry degree students came to the ASU campus to take part in a new, innovative in-person accelerated laboratory course. Photo by Mary Zhu/School of Molecular Sciences

During the day, Andrea Adeusi works hard to support her family. At night, she works toward her dream of becoming a pediatrician. Adeusi is an ASU Online BS in biochemistry student who took part in Arizona State University's new innovative accelerated organic chemistry laboratory courses this past summer.

The School of Molecular Sciences launched a fully online biochemistry bachelor's degree program in fall 2017, the very first in the U.S.

When designing the online biochemistry degree, the school faced a major challenge — how can these students claim they are scientists if they don't have the same hands-on laboratory experiences as the traditional on-campus students? A real hands-on lab experience was required, but the question was, how to do it?

Many online students are full-time working professionals and it would be difficult to have them take part in a typical eight-week summer lab. The solution was to rethink the traditional lab experience and design a new accelerated program specifically for these students. Adeusi was part of the first cohort of online students who came to Tempe from all over the U.S. to take these new lab courses.

The accelerated on-campus lab adds a unique component to the online biochemistry degree, which is currently the only online degree at ASU to offer such an on-ground experience.  

"The innovative accelerated lab format makes it possible for our online students to reap the same benefits of a hands-on laboratory experience as traditional on campus students," said Anne Jones, associate director of academic affairs in the School of Molecular Sciences.

“Students graduating from the ASU Online biochemistry program will be able to talk about their hands-on lab experience. This will put them at an advantage in comparison to other students taking online degrees without this experience,” said Ian Gould, associate director of online programs. "This is important in order for these students to remain competitive when they are applying to postgraduate programs, such as medical school."

The accelerated lab curriculum is nearly identical to the traditional on-ground lab. The only difference is that the students performed two to three experiments a day instead of one experiment a week. Rather than feeling rushed through the experience, the students found it to be rewardingly immersive, and in many ways more coherent than the traditional lab courses, which are broken up over 14 weeks.  

At the end of the courses, the students were tested on their lab skills and course content. Then they were surveyed on their motivations and how strongly they identified as scientists. The online students scored considerably higher than the traditional on-ground students in all of these areas.

Adeusi felt the lab experience gave her the confidence to claim she is a scientist.

“I have never felt this way in a chemistry lab before where I am actually completing successful experiments and really understanding why I am completing those experiments,” Adeusi said.

There was some initial hesitation and push-back against the idea of incorporating an on-ground lab component to the degree. However, rather than being an hinderance to the online students, Gould believes it is the opposite.

“This is not an impediment to an online degree, instead, it's a huge advantage,” Gould said. “As far as I know, we are the only people who can offer this right now.”

The students of the first cohort indicated a clear preference to take the labs on ASU's campus rather than at another institution closer to home. They wanted to meet their peers and meet their faculty. They wanted to be Sun Devils.

Tawny Fajardo, a nurse who aspires to become a surgeon, said coming to campus helped her understand the connection between the work she learned at home and the work the students conducted in the lab.

“Being brought on campus really triggers the opportunity to learn more, to become well-rounded in the lab and engage in that challenge,” Fajardo said.

One of the major goals of the online biochemistry degree is to provide a vital STEM education opportunity to a wider range of students. For example, there are three times as many African-American students enrolled in online degree programs, in comparison to the on-campus programs.  

Ara Austin, online program coordinator at the School of Molecular Sciences, believes education should be flexible and should provide opportunity to all students, traditional or otherwise.

“We are really helping those students that we say need our help and need to be represented more in STEM,” Austin said. “We actually took it a step further and did something about it.”

"ASU and EdPlus thrive on developing innovative solutions to overcome barriers to achievement in higher education," said Phil Regier, ASU's university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus. "This elegant solution for biochemistry labs has allowed ASU to deliver what was unthinkable five or six years ago: a rigorous, research-driven biochemistry degree for online, adult learners. The faculty deserve congratulations for figuring out how to let anyone in the world access their undergraduate degree program."

Written by: Sunaina Tandon, communications assistant, School of Molecular Sciences 

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