Humanizing Online STEM Showcase

Adriel Cruz

Associate Professor of Anatomy and Physiology

Sierra College

This site provides examples of instructional resources created in the Humanizing Online STEM Academy, a professional development program funded by the California Education Learning Lab and administered by the Foothill DeAnza Community College District.


Where I was.

Before I started the Academy, I honestly felt lost about how to even approach equity gaps in my courses in general, let alone in an online version of my course. Teaching a science class like human anatomy, the content didn't lend itself to explicitly addressing equity issues, unlike the content in a history course, English course, or other liberal arts courses. That said, I was and am still very well aware that STEM fields, both academically and professionally, suffer from egregious equity gaps. And so I started the Academy hoping to find answers on just how to start addressing those issues in STEM.

When I was an undergraduate student, I certainly was "tested in the fires" through a traditional STEM education - large lecture halls where I was a lonely dot in a sea of students, minimal interaction with my professors beyond listening to them lecture, and a mentality that it was all on me to figure things out and succeed. Even before I began to teach online, I knew that this traditional approach of "weeding out" was inequitable. I promised myself and my future students that their educational experiences would be different. That instead of a distant inaccessible professor, I would be someone who was both available and willing to help my students achieve their goals. By going through the Academy, I realize that the way I manifested that intent was how I conducted my in-person classes - group quizzes, interactive lab activities, and an overall environment that fostered learning communities. Yet when I initially developed my online courses through the pandemic, these elements were the last things on my mind. While this partly due to simply trying to surviving online teaching, it was also admittedly because of a lack of tools that accomplished those humanizing elements.

Where I am.

Having gone through the Academy, I can now say that I, at least, have some starting points! My general theme, while the content may not necessarily lend itself to explicit conversations about race and gender inequality, I've learned that how we approach our students in delivering the material and conducting the class may serve as the key to addressing these gaps. I can confidently say that the Academy has given me not only the tools, but a prime example of how to best implement those tools to create those learning environments - helping my online students feel like they are not isolated learners but, indeed, part of a rich and vibrant learning community.

Where I am going.

Every semester I always try and improve my courses. But in the past, I've mainly focused on updating content, creating new assignments, and improving my assessments. While those aspects can certainly still be improved, my focus for the moment is to look at these humanizing elements. Videos to help humanize me to my students, making me more than just some random instructor on the other side of the screen posting videos and putting grades on assessments. Videos for discussions boards, helping students realize they are not alone in tackling these difficult concepts. And, of course, taking the time for meaningful feedback. Admittedly, my grading practices have been merely assigning a number score with little to no feedback on how to improve. Now, I know that I should take the time to invest in my students' success and give them meaningful feedback that helps to foster a growth mindset not only for my class, but their academic career altogether!

Liquid Syllabus

I had actually developed this liquid syllabus in the past for a previous professional development. However, thanks to my peers in the Academy, having a fresh set of eyes helped me to see what the first impressions of my older liquid syllabus were. One thing I learned in the Academy is that first impressions matter, and the syllabus is the ultimate first impression! Human Anatomy is a daunting class even before students start the semester. This is my best shot at helping to break that tension right from the start and set a tone that shows students that I am here to support them from day one!

Course Card

In the past, I always tried to create a course card that just looked cool! Typically I went with some kind of artsy anatomy picture. And while, I'm sure, that those cards at least broke the monotony of solid colors in a Canvas dashboard, the Academy taught me that including actual people in my course card is a small change that could potentially have a significant impact on my students. Here, my intent is that showing a picture that not only shows a female student, but also a female instructor, will help my female students (which are most of them) see that they can succeed in my course!


When creating my homepage, I used the following aspects to try and create kindness cues to help invite students into the course

  • A welcome banner image that includes "Welcome to BIOL 5 - Human Anatomy!"

  • An image of me, their instructor, showing students the face behind their announcements, lectures, etc.

  • A brief welcome message that invites them to the course.

  • Overall, brevity. In the past, I have populated the home page with a lot of information about the course. I decided to move those to an introductory module, keeping the majority of the homepage to a simple welcome to the student.

Getting to Know You Survey

This survey will be part of my Week 1 module, included with other module items that help to introduce the course. Putting it here not only provides me with this information early on, but helps students to see early on that I am committed to seeing my students as more than just another name on my roster.

While there are my questions on this survey, the two I feel that will benefit me the most are:

  • Is there anything that you'd like me to know about yourself? Particularly, what challenges are you the most anxious about?

    I expect students to let me know about what obstacles may be in their way to their learning - anything from having to juggle multiple jobs, familial responsibilities, to even just general anxiety to the course.

  • What can I do to support you?

    While I want to do everything to support my students, I've learned to be cognizant that students may want support in different ways. Instead of assuming what is best for the student, I should give them a chance to let me know what works best for them.

Ice Breaker

In this Flip Ice Breaker activity, I ask students the following:

"I'd like for you to share with me and your classmates what and/or who motivates you. What's pushing you to do your best and succeed not just in this course, but on your overall personal journey."

I chose this topic because it gives an insight to the communities that students come from. Very few people come to my class on a whim, and I hope that by allowing students to share their motivation, it not only inspires them to start off strong, but to also gives students a chance to find others with similar backgrounds, building even more connections and expanding their communities.

Wisdom Wall

This Wisdom Wall assignment is designed to be given right after Exam 1. Like with many first exams, students often find that the way they prepared themselves was not as effective as it could have been. Here, this gives them a chance to not only reflect for themselves, but to share the lessons they've learned with each other. My hope is that students will find that their classmates had similar struggles, helping to mitigate the feeling that they are the only ones struggling.

Bumper Video

One of the most challenging topics in the beginning of my course is identifying epithelial tissues. While this bumper video is not designed to replace my microlecture on epithelial tissue, it is designed as a supplemental video to give students tips and tricks on identifying these difficult tissues.


One of the first foundational topics in Human Anatomy is a basic understanding of homeostasis.

Learning Objective: Students will be able to identify the components of a homeostasis in provided examples as well as identify whether the example is a positive or negative feedback loop.

In this video, I not only describe the basic components of homeostasis, along with introducing negative and positive feedback loops, but also give students example problems to try for themselves. It's that final active learning component that I hope will help students move beyond just absorbing material and actually practicing and applying it.

(as a side note, I have begun using the software PlayPosit which actually embeds these questions and as students type out their answers, turning my microlectures into mini-assignments)