Making in-person STEM courses more open — what can we do?


Happy Thursday, fellow ONL-ers!

Before we get into a beautiful, wonderful four-day weekend here in Sweden, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on openness and how to incorporate it into in-person natural science courses. Although courses with in-person components will never be as accessible to those from underrepresented groups as, e.g, MOOCs, there are times where bench- or fieldwork is necessary to develop as a scientist. Unsurprisingly, those times are usually the ones where PhD students, such as myself, are asked to teach.

For the past five years, I’ve been a lecturer and lab assistant for a course in conservation biology. The course has been held both in-person and online (2020 was rough), but we’ve transitioned mostly to in-person teaching this year due to the number of workshops and labs in the course plan. Regardless of course format, I’ve always aimed to make each iteration of ConBio more open and accessible to underrepresented students than the last. I feel that promoting openness is especially pertinent to education in the natural sciences, as a culture of openness will naturally foster behaviours important to scientific reproducability – like data and code sharing.

But perhaps I’m getting a bit off-topic. The real question I want to ask today is that of how we can begin to make science education more open – even when it can’t be fully online. I’ve listed four of my suggestions below, but I’d love to read more about what others are doing in their classrooms!

  1. Choose (or write!) textbooks that are freely available to students online or through your university’s library. Paper copies of textbooks are often prohibitively expensive, leaving roughly 60% of students choosing to go without at some point in their education (see 1, 2). Open-source textbooks exist for many introductory-level courses in the sciences and have the added benefit of being easily updatable as new discoveries are made. For population genetics, I quite like using Graham Coop’s PopGen notes (
  2. On days where you’re giving conventional lectures or personally demoing a lab technique, record your lecture and share it online. This makes it much easier for students who had work or childcare duties, or who were ill, to catch up with what they missed. Many of my past students have also noted that they really appreciated having recorded lectures as review material, as they could watch me walk through exercises step-by-step and figure out where they were going wrong in their own work.
  3. Be as transparent as possible. This includes transparency with deadlines, requirements, and grading policies for the course, but also with expected outcomes of the education and with the shortcomings of whatever material is being taught. As a fun assignment, I suggest that students use LinkedIn to look for jobs that require the skills they’ll develop in my class and then reflect on what might be useful for them to learn in the future.I also try to be transparent with the fact that sometimes, the methods I teach may not be the correct tools to conserve species. I like to believe that by being open about the limitations of what I’m teaching, I encourage a bit of critical thinking in the classroom. Is the suggested conservation plan in an assignment even a good one? Are we using the right kind of DNA sequencing for the questions we want to answer? It’s up to my students to decide and discuss.
  4. Offer informal meeting times if possible. When I was in undergrad, I had a wonderful ecology professor who held weekly coffee hours at a local café. We could join her to discuss assignments, careers in science, cool papers – really, anything that we wanted. As someone who grew up in a rural, small town and who didn’t meet a scientist until I was away at uni, this sort of informal get-together was a lot less daunting for me to attend than traditional office hours. As such, it’s now something I offer to my own students during review periods.
    Pro tip: it really helps attendance if you offer to bring a cute puppy (see above photo for an example of a cute puppy).


If you have other tips on how to make primarily lab-based courses more open, let me know in the comments below! I’ve yet to take a formal pedagogy course, so I’m happy to hear any and all suggestions.

Until next time,


Works cited:

  1. Martin, M. T.; Belikov, O. M.; Hilton, J.; Wiley, D.; Fischer, L. Analysis of Student and Faculty Perceptions of Textbook Costs in Higher Education. Open Praxis 2017, 9 (1), 79–91.
  2. Hendricks, C.; Reinsberg, S. A.; Rieger, G. W. The Adoption of an Open Textbook in a Large Physics Course: An Analysis of Cost, Outcomes, Use, and Perceptions. irrodl 2017, 18 (4), 78–99.


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  1. I definitely agree with you Hanna, the recording of sessions and experiments can also be used for walkthroughs on the proper practices to ensure that the students can also ensure they matched your techniques.

    As for the informal coffee session, it works by appealing to the human nature of people by changing the atmosphere into one that is less tense and could also lead to students informally hanging out and discussing assignments – I legitimately think this should be the standard operating protocol,

  2. I really like your list of helpful tips and tricks to foster open learning! The idea of inviting students for coffee is really nice. Maybe it could even be done via e.g. Zoom? I will definitely consider this concept!

    In your lab work, would it be possible to have the students design their own experiment? I think that could be really rewarding, if it fits with the course/curriculum. I think in general, we overlook a critcial aspect of being a scientist when we only offer the students already thought-out experiments/problems to solve, (we do this too, so this is in no way a criticism towards you!) I have been wondering to what degree one could open this up to the students, at least to some degree, so that they themselves have to formulate the hypothesis and design the experiment to test it. That would very likely increase the motivation in the students, but could also be quite daunting, especially for undergraduate students. I don’t think this is easily done, but it could be very rewarding. What do you think?

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