What does a science classroom look like during virtual learning? How in the world can a teacher make content connect through a screen? One visit to Lindsey Tonge’s Honors Biology class and you have your answer—make it relevant. Since the beginning of Virtual Nobles, Tonge has found ways to weave curriculum and current events together to make learning come alive for her students.
Students who take Honors Biology spend the year studying the relationships between the structure, function and maintenance of homeostasis in ecological and biological systems through a molecular approach. Tonge admits to being nostalgic for many aspects of teaching in the physical classroom space; among the things that are particularly missed are the many tools they have access to at school, such as stethoscopes and pressure cuffs, that make learning about the human body interesting for students. Tonge explained, “We have models of the heart, brain and lungs. We usually get to do dissections with the students—a pig heart and then a full species such as a rat or a fetal pig. These hands-on activities are beloved by students and it is sad that we can’t do them at home.”
Nevertheless, Tonge has found many ways to make science both interesting and pertinent for her students this spring as her course shifted to online learning. “The fourth quarter in Honors Biology is all about the human body,” said Tonge, “which students love. It is all about them, and we study how and why their bodies work, which most students find fascinating. Usually, we start with the digestive system and then branch into the respiratory, cardiovascular, excretory, immune, nervous and reproductive systems.”
The course is intrinsically relevant to the students’ lives, and during this unique time in our world, with a pandemic determining our every move, Tonge has used the relatability of the curriculum to help her class see the timeliness of their study of the human systems. Tonge explained that her students really enjoy discussing current events related to the human body, adding, “This year, it is particularly relevant to talk about the coronavirus and how our immune systems work, and with that comes the idea of a coronavirus vaccine.” This spring, students have discussed how vaccines work and have gone a step beyond that science to learn about and discuss the vaccine controversy in general. “Throughout the rest of the human body systems,” explained Tonge, “we’ll discuss how each system is particularly affected by the virus. So we’ll talk about how the virus attacks the lungs in particular and why that is so difficult. We’ll talk about how it gets transported via the blood to different parts of the body. So we are using the virus as a framework to talk about the human body in general.”
While there is much discussion in Tonge’s class about Covid-19, it is not the sole topic of conversation. The course material and the students’ interest in topical issues naturally allows for conversation about other systems, and they discuss everything from different causes of cancer to sources for new treatments and the concept behind stem cells, how they work, and why scientists are interested in them. They learn about the causes and prevention of heart attacks and study allergies, asthma and neurodegenerative diseases. “It helps to make everything a little more real to them,” explained Tonge.
Tonge has also taken advantage of many excellent animations and movies made about all of the systems to enhance online learning. The videos, which are both fun and informative, have ranged in topic from how a virus gets into your body and what happens inside of your body if you get Covid-19, to the immune system, the inflammatory response, homeostasis, and how soap kills the virus. Videos covering vaccines and the origins of the anti-vaccine movement sparked a lot of interesting class discussions, and others have served as an introduction to the respiratory and circulatory systems.
On Wednesday, May 13, Dr. Stephen Hodi, father of Caroline Hodi ’23, visited the class via Zoom to talk about his research in immunotherapy. Dr. Hodi is the Director of the Melanoma Center and the Center for Immuno-Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. This spring, many classes have been fortunate enough to welcome visitors such as Dr. Hodi during Virtual Nobles, enhancing the learning experience and helping the students see the practicality and the applicability of the content they are learning.
The students might prefer to be in the physical classroom using the actual models of hearts and lungs, practicing with stethoscopes and pressure cuffs, and dissecting pig hearts or fetal pigs, but creative educators like Tonge are continuing to provide a rich learning experience despite the obstacles brought on by an unwelcome virus and the lack of a vaccine. Tonge is helping her students learn to make the most of a difficult situation and still receive an excellent education.