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Changing Course

A spotlight on Innovation in Instruction

Waheeda Khalfan flips script with COVID-19 course

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Waheeda Khalfan, PhD, an award-winning teacher and longtime lecturer in Stanford’s Biology Department, has been pioneering an unusual approach to teaching science. She aims to design courses that go beyond learning from textbooks and lectures and seeks to deepen students’ understanding through in-depth discussion, study of current research and rooting the lessons in contemporary events.

Erik Brown, senior project manager at Stanford Digital Education, spoke with Dr. Khalfan in December about the Summer 2021 pilot run of her online course, Bio 19S The Science of COVID-19. She is preparing to teach a new iteration of the class, Bio 63, in the spring quarter.

This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

Erik Brown: So, can you talk to us a little bit about what is arguably the most relevant course for many students right now, the “Science of COVID-19”?

Waheeda Khalfan: There were so many questions at the beginning of the pandemic, so much confusion. So I thought that was just ripe for exploration. And it paired well with an idea that I had for a while, which was that courses I previously taught were textbook based; they were the products of research. They were not revealing or highlighting the process of discovering something new, especially when you didn’t know something upfront.

So, I thought, we are all in this together and this is — in a crazy way — a bonding experience over scientific discovery. And I very much felt that when I was interacting with my students in the summer. None of us knew the outcome of COVID-19 or the challenges that would come with it.

So it was a wonderful and humbling experience to be a part of that, as it highlighted how much we generally don't know and how the science of discovery works.

Waheeda Khalfan

EB: Can you then talk about how your process-driven approach engaged and maintained student excitement? Especially while remote, with all of the unique circumstances your students were facing?

WK: That's such a great question, because I’m always thinking: How do you make something like this successful? I have to be humble and say it's a work in progress, and it can be a lot more successful. But I can tell you that I’ve discovered a few things about the online landscape that have really surprised me.

There are so many accessible tools out there now. The very same tools scientists are using, our students are also using in the classroom. And that’s exciting for students. It’s a great equalizer in some ways. Having access to tools like that has been really empowering. Students say: “We want to check out what latest variant is popping up now,” and, as a group, they’d go to Nextstrain, which is where sampled sequences are made accessible by and for scientists.

So, engaging the students online has actually worked out to be easier, in some instances, than in the classroom, where maybe they’d rely more on me to be the expert and the font of knowledge. Now it's more like, “Okay, well why don't you go explore…and then share what you find out.”

EB: When we spoke earlier in December, you mentioned this beautiful term: “minimum viable knowledge.” Meaning: What you know AND don’t know coming in is enough for engaging discovery. Framing it this way allows your students to identify those questions for themselves rather than expecting you to just provide answers. That way, even if they don't find an answer, which is okay, that's still part of the process. Could you talk a bit more about this and the community built by that practice, where now everyone is positioned to share knowledge.

WK: I think that all stemmed from something I noticed I do — and I think all of us struggle with this as teachers. A lot of times you just want to tell people how something works. Then you get into all these gory,  seemingly boring details about it. I realized that we needed to flip that script.

An example of this, in the context of this course, was when the virus caused symptoms in certain populations, the question became: Why is it causing those symptoms? And a student might say it probably has something to do with cells. And then that opens up the question: What do cells do in the first place?

And so you are creating a reason for knowing, asking, hypothesizing. Otherwise you often hear how biology is this big boring subject with lots of memorizing to do. I don't blame students for feeling that way. All of that information is really important, but there has to be a reason for it. The student has to feel the need to know it.

I feel like I have to challenge myself to flip that script and to give my students a reason. I find that students are much more receptive to that. Sometimes they want to figure it out on their own and sometimes I need to present a lecture to provide sufficient scaffolding for them so they can then go and explore on their own.

The students have choices in terms of the topics they want to explore. It makes this a more robust course and makes it more honest, which hopefully inspires the students to say. “Oh, wow, I really do need to figure out how this thing works.” Mirroring what I'm doing in the classroom, they're also doing that themselves. Of course, with some support.

EB: With topics like variants and booster shots, the science around COVID-19 continues to evolve. How do you create content that is almost impossible to make evergreen? When what you taught on a Monday may be tipped on its head by Friday?

WK: (Laugh) It certainly keeps one on one's toes. It keeps you honest.

Because the students are seeing how information is changing, I think it helps reinforce all of those things we were saying earlier about how we're at the frontier moving into the unknown. And that’s exciting!

People shouldn't be worried that it's going to be a chaotic experience. Our ability to progress and discover more about this virus is based on the very fundamental principles of biology. That won’t change.

What I've discovered is that this model can be employed to build courses around different topics- and that would be awesome.

EB: As we wrap up, I'm curious to know if there was anything I missed that might be worth sharing with the Stanford community?

WK: I think the one thing I will say is that students might be a little intimidated by a new topic — and I felt the same way throughout this entire journey. But, that was okay. Sometimes my students would throw a [research] paper at me, and I would be like: “Oh my! Yeah… I really need to figure this out.”

And so, I think it's okay to not know everything. Even as teachers. It's okay to not know. And it's good for the students to see that teachers don't know — [for teachers] to embrace that and to be learners in that journey with the students in a very real way. Nobody can be an expert on everything, but it's okay to take on that mantle and to say, “Hey, you know what, I have enough interest in this topic that I’ll know some things about it, and that's enough to keep on discovering.”

Published January 26, 2022

Erik Brown is a senior project manager at Stanford Digital Education.

This is the first installment in Stanford Digital Education’s “Changing Course” feature, which spotlights innovative ways in which members of the Stanford community are leveraging digital education techniques to better meet their learning goals and enrich students' experiences. If you would like to be showcased, please reach out to Jonathan Rabinovitz,