Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A student works in the Cornell Ma Lab. As lab-based classes have moved online, some professors are recording their experiments while others replaced the lab components altogether.

April 20, 2020

When Labs Become Recordings: Students Adjust to Virtual Hands-On Lab Classes

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For Cornell’s STEM students, hands-on lab classes are a crucial part of life. Yet with students away from campus, professors now must teach classes based on in-person experiments.

Professors are solving this problem in different ways: Some are recording lab experiments from their homes, while others have eliminated labs altogether.

For entomology major Benjamin Burgunder ’22, the transition to virtual classes has meant taking his entomology lab classes — Larval Insect Biology and Insect Physiology — online.

Both of his lab classes have replaced dissections and other hands-on work with lectures and research papers.

“You can’t really do dissections over Zoom,” Burgunder said. “You can learn how a system works, but you can’t see what components connect to what.”

Despite the class restructuring, Burgunder said he is not too worried about missing out on skills he will need in future classes because the techniques like larval identification and phylogeny are “fairly specialized.”

Burgunder said he misses the lost portions of the lab courses, but remained impressed with his professors’ efforts to adapt to virtual learning.

“I think my professors are doing the best job possible in converting what would have been half a semester of in-person labs into online lessons,” Burgunder said.

Other courses, like Molecular Biology and Genetics 4400: Biochemistry Lab, still have a focus on lab activities, in which professors record the labs for students. Pooja Reddy ’20 said she enjoys the low pressure atmosphere of online learning, but misses the social component of lab classes.

“I miss having a [lab partner] to do experiments with,” Reddy said. “The professor records himself doing all the protocols and talks to us about how to do everything, so even though I’m not physically doing it, I feel like I’m learning the techniques.”

Reddy said she found the recording and written instructions for lab protocols to be a sufficient replacement for the in-person version.

She added that she is also particularly impressed that the professor is running each of the 20 lab group’s different CRISPR experiments — a genetic manipulation technique — so students can analyze data from their individual projects.

Despite efforts to adapt the class to an online setting, some students miss the physical work of implementing their own experiments.

Andrew Brodrick ’20, who calls himself “a lab guy,” said lab work is meditative for him. Watching his professor complete these labs fails to recreate the same satisfaction of completing the work himself.

Even though Brodrick worked at the veterinary college’s Parker lab and practiced skills taught in a biochemistry lab, he expressed worry for the students with less prior lab experience, who now don’t have the opportunity to physically practice the tasks themselves.

“I really feel for the people who don’t get a chance to do [the lab techniques] hands on,” Brodrick said, “because it is an important learning experience and also an enjoyable thing to do.”