Summer courses are an abiding tradition at UW. They’ve long been the boon of undergrads looking to stay on track to graduation, lighten their fall/spring academic loads, or sneak in classes that give them an edge in the job market. But summer offerings have grown even more robust in recent years, and enrollment has risen, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. A record 10,000 undergraduates registered in 2020 for what is officially called Summer Term.
It’s not just traditional undergraduates who take advantage of Summer Term’s mix of online and in-person classes. Others include visiting, international, and high school students. And incoming freshmen who enroll in “early start” programs, such as QuickStart at CALS, can earn credit through Summer Term while meeting their professors and peers — all before their first fall semester even begins.
A rigorous Summer Term remains a priority at CALS. To increase access and flexibility for students, the college’s instructors have taken some of their most engaging courses and adapted them for online delivery during the warm, sunny season of Wisconsin. Here are some fine examples.
Data Science from a Distance
by Nicole Miller MS’06
Situated just north of Bozeman, the rocky peaks of Montana’s Bangtail Mountains rise above nearby pine forests and scattered grasslands. Paige Sauer has never visited the striking locale, but she’s rather well acquainted with one of the meadows there.
It’s the site of an ecological observation station that generates a stream of data, one that she learned to access and analyze in an online course last summer called BSE 375 Introductory Data Science for the Agricultural and Life Sciences. And, in some ways, the remote experience transported her there.
“I’m always in Wisconsin. It’s where I live; it’s where I go to school,” says Sauer, a senior majoring in biological systems engineering. “I’ve never been to [the Bangtail Mountains] or even heard about them before the class, but I feel like I know everything that’s going on there.”
In the course, students learn how to write computer code and then use it to gather, analyze, interpret, and visualize data, sometimes utilizing large datasets with hundreds of thousands of datapoints. As they build their data science skills, students work with real-world information from the agricultural and life sciences fields, which helps bring their coursework to life.
“There are so many rich data resources in the world, including for agricultural systems and natural systems, but we have to know how to use [the data] to be able to benefit from it,” says instructor Paul Stoy, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. “Data science holds the key to unlocking how to manage systems for productivity and sustainability.”
At the start of the semester, each student is assigned a research station from among the sites Stoy is actively studying. Each station produces hundreds of thousands of measurements, including datapoints taken every half hour for temperature, carbon dioxide levels, and vapor pressure. Students use the data from their assigned sites to complete homework projects and for quizzes, which often take the form of coding challenges.
Sauer and her classmates used data from sites in Montana, where Stoy used to live and work, but subsequent classes are now accessing data from Wisconsin research stations.
“I’m still building up my research activity in the state, where I will be utilizing the same [eco-logical observation stations]. They’re exactly the same instruments, just put up in Adams County, Wisconsin,” says Stoy, who joined CALS in 2019. He studies how environmental conservation affects what is called the “earth system” — earth’s interacting physical, chemical, and biological processes — including on managed and unmanaged lands.
Stoy plans to offer the course (now renumbered as BSE 380) in person during the school year and virtually during summers to offer students the greatest flexibility. Students use a free, open-source software known as “R” for coding; no prior experience is required.
Things start slow, says Stoy, and then ramp up, with the goal that everyone reaches the same coding level by the end of class. Students leave with a solid foundation in coding, a valuable career skill.
“R is an important program to use in the engineering world,” says Constantin Bensch, a junior majoring in biological systems engineering. “I had some base knowledge of R coming in from a previous statistics class I took. This class did a great job of using real-world examples of projects that I would do in [my career].”
It’s no secret that coding can be frustrating. It requires an attention to detail that can drive a person crazy; but, when everything works, it can lead to satisfying breakthroughs.
“The hardest part, probably with any computer language, is just trying to find where you messed up, like a missing comma or quotation mark or whatever it is,” says Sauer. “I would have to reread through [my code], trying to figure out why things weren’t working, and tweak things. But once you get a few tips and tricks under your belt, it’s [easier].”
Throughout the course, everything builds towards a final project, where each student produces a report with numerous figures, tables, and visual aids that describes their assigned research site.
“Completing the project used all of the skills we learned in class,” says Bensch. “I really enjoyed the satisfaction of finishing my project and getting my code to work.”
Into the Heart of the Science Headlines
By Caroline Schneider MS’11
Precision medicine, genetic testing, antibiotic resistance, GMOs, cloning. Open almost any newspaper or click on any online news site, and you’re likely to see headlines about many of these scientific topics. Woven through these stories is a common thread — genetics.
But how much do readers really know about genetics? And how much does our knowledge — or lack of it — affect our opinions about these scientific issues and the stories that cover them? These are the questions students get to answer in a Summer Term course called Genetics 133 Genetics in the News.
“Genetics is at the heart of many issues facing society,” says course instructor Katie Vermillion Kalmon, who is director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Genetics. “In Genetics 133, we gain a deeper understanding of the science behind the headlines so that the students can make informed decisions and help educate those around them.”
It’s a vital goal for students who run into genetics in so many corners of their lives, from the news to dinnertime discussions to genealogical testing kits. And in addition to the science, Vermillion Kalmon introduces the underlying ethics of these issues, an aspect that has been missing from many science classes.
“We may be able to cure diseases, but should we? What if the genetics changes can be passed on to future generations? Who has access to the treatment?” says Vermillion Kalmon, recipient of the 2021 Spitzer Excellence in Teaching Award. “Social and ethical issues surround every topic, and the students need to think about these questions.”
For many students, being able to take both the genetic information and the bioethics questions to other parts of their lives is one of the highlights of the class. “I learned a lot of material and was able to talk to my family, coworkers, and friends about these types of topics. Everyone is interested,” says Brenen Skalitzky, a first-year genetics and genomics student who took the course in summer 2021.
Genetics 133 is offered year-round but in different formats — in person during the semester and virtually over the summer. Vermillion Kalmon was able to fine-tune her online class, even before the pandemic hit, through help from Teach Online@UW (a campus learning community of instructors and instructional designers) and a UW–Madison Continuing Studies grant.
Through the grant, an instructional designer showed her how to take her course from the classroom to the computer.
“We knew as a department that online options were something we wanted to provide to students, so when Continuing Studies offered grants, we applied,” says Vermillion Kalmon. “The grant was greatly timed since I moved my course online prior to coronavirus. When the pandemic came, it was ready to go, and that allowed me to help train other faculty in my department to get ready for online teaching.”
The summer online course is broken up into eight modules, each including lectures, news articles, group learning activities conducted via Zoom, and exams. The lectures and reading can be done on each student’s schedule, giving them flexibility during the summer when they might be working or studying in different time zones. And it’s a structure that has received universally positive feedback.
“The class was taught incredibly well,” says Alyssa Bhoopat, a first-year student who took Genetics 133 in summer 2021. “While there definitely was a lot of information to cover and take in, lecture videos were engaging, and the content was very interesting.”
Skalitzky agrees, adding, “I had lots of fun with the weekly team assignments. Hearing other students’ opinions about more controversial issues is eye-opening. I also wanted to be able to understand scientific journals and judge the reliability of news stories. Genetics 133 helped me with these skills, and the media-literacy component was very important to me.”
The course is popular with non-genetics majors, Vermillion Kalmon says, but she’s seeing more genetics majors enroll, especially through early-start programs. This includes both Bhoopat, a CALS QuickStart student, and Skalitzky, a participant in the Wisconsin Experience Summer Launch Program.
For Bhoopat, a genetics and genomics major, the advantages of taking the course early went beyond the class content. “Being able to connect with faculty before starting the fall semester was invaluable,” she explains. “Dr. Vermillion Kalmon answered so many questions, even about topics outside the class, and she helped ease my nerves as the year started.”
Vermillion Kalmon is happy to see more early-start students in her summer course. And although Genetics 133 isn’t part of the curriculum for genetics and genomics majors, she would like to find more ways for those students to fit the class into their schedules and use it as a basis for their science courses to come.
“Students really learn a lot of genetics, and how much genetics relates to every aspect of our lives becomes very evident to them early on in the course,” explains Vermillion Kalmon. “It gives them an overview of the topics they’re going to see throughout their classes.”
The Microbial World Is Nothing to Fear for Non-science Majors
By Michael P. King
Last year, Blythe Callahan, a third-year history and economics undergrad at UW–Madison, needed to earn a science credit required for her degree. She also wanted to study abroad for a year, and it seemed like a Summer Term course could help her stay on track. One online option felt “non-intimidating” to her: Microbiology 100 The Microbial World.
“It feels like a science course taught for those who don’t always naturally ‘get’ science. It fit me well,” says Callahan from London, where she is studying abroad for a full year.
Microbio 100 is designed with non-science majors in mind. The course takes students through a broad survey of the role bacteria and viruses play in the foods we eat, the products we use, and diseases that impact our health. The class dates back many years, although it was revived in 2018 for online-only delivery through Canvas, a cloud-based learning management system. Each summer, students enroll and log-on from home, whether that’s in Wisconsin, across the country, or around the world.
“There are people around the world that are looking for a microbiology class,” says instructor Timothy Paustian BS’85, PhD’89, a distinguished teaching professor in the Department of Bacteriology. “I have students in China, India, Europe, and South America who take this class because it’s online, and they have perspectives that are very interesting and fun.”
Callahan, who is from Chicago, most appreciated how the class taught her to research and write about topics she was less comfortable with. She’s considering law school and a career in disability law or criminal defense and sees herself applying those skills in the future.
“I liked the course more than I expected,” she says. “I went into it just thinking of it as a way to [meet] requirements, but I actually enjoyed challenging myself in a new field. It really strengthened my writing skills.”
Misinformation is as old as science itself, though the current era is rife with deception. So Paustian dedicates one week to it — using topics such as the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and raw (unpasteurized) milk — to help students strengthen their ability to evaluate and understand sometimes confusing scientific information.
“It’s absolutely critical that, as a citizen of this world, you are good at finding the truth, and finding the frauds,” Paustian says in the lecture.
Students learn about disease-causing pathogens, discuss the ones they’ve encountered themselves, and then learn about the human immune system. And with the COVID-19 pandemic permeating nearly every facet of life for the last two years, Paustian has been able to insert a weeklong unit on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease.
But perhaps most surprising to Microbio 100 students are the units focused on the benefits — and the necessity — of microbes. That’s driven home through lessons and discussions about microbial partnerships (when plants and animals survive or thrive due to the presence of microbes) and enzymes.
“That’s one that really surprises them,” says Paustian. “They have no idea how much of modern life depends on microbial enzymes.”
From detergents to food ingredients to medical treatments for heart attacks, diabetes, and lactose intolerance, students come to realize how enzymes are doing vital work nearly everywhere they look. And that’s just the outcome Paustian hopes for.
“I want them to have a real appreciation of how many ways microbiology and the science of microbiology impacts their lives,” he says. “Just as I’m a strong proponent that people in technical fields or the research sciences need humanities to understand the world, I also think people in the humanities need to be engaged in understanding science and the scientific process.”This article was posted in Basic Science, Features, Food Systems, Health and Wellness, Healthy Ecosystems, Spring 2022 and tagged biological systems engineering, data science, Genetics, Katie Vermillion Kalmon, Microbiology, online course, Paul Stoy, summer term, Timothy Paustian.