(Jing Jiang / Sun File Photo)

As students and faculty prepare for the fall semester, questions remain regarding the logistics of lab courses, many of which rely on in-person activities and collaboration.

June 29, 2020

Awaiting University Decision, Professors Prepare for Socially-Distanced Lab Classes

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As STEM majors prepare for the fall semester in just a couple months, many wonder how their lab classes will adjust. Professors are now making contingency plans as they await President Martha E. Pollack’s announcement on the fall semester.

The report released by The Committee on Preparation for Online Teaching advises professors to “adjust learning objectives” when possible, in order to facilitate remote instruction and focus on skills such as data analysis. Proposed solutions include shifting lab classes entirely online, de-densifying laboratory conditions, using home lab kits and deferring some lab classes to the spring.

But this summer, some professors are teaching lab courses remotely.

Prof. Mark Sarvary, neurobiology and behavior, is teaching BIOG 1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory, and uses SimBio — a platform for virtual lab activities — and online lectures for online lab simulations. Sarvary and his lab assistants have been working to record video tutorials on how to use lab equipment.

Investigative Biology Laboratory is designed to give students lab experience through teaching lab skills and experimental design, so students can then have opportunities to put these new skills into practice. The learning objectives of his course make it well suited to online instruction, Sarvary said.

“Our goal is to teach the scientific process, experimental design, coming up with a hypothesis, setting up an experiment, analyzing the data, learning statistics and communicating,” Sarvary said. “We are not losing those aspects of the course when we move online.”

Sarvary is working to ensure his course is accessible to students with disabilities, including captioning videos to make them accessible to Deaf students.

Prof. Veit Elser, physics, teaches AEP 2170 Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism. Elser said online course strategies for physics labs could include him recording labs, letting students use household objects to conduct experiments, and having students learning physics through online simulations.

For laboratory classes that are difficult to make remote, the committee recommended that such classes should be prioritized in the scheduling process for in-person classes. However, in-person labs will still be de-densified and require safety adaptations that may create challenges.

According to Sarvary, a de-densified laboratory may pose a challenge to group work-based labs, because having multiple people work on an experiment together while staying six feet apart may be difficult.

De-densified laboratories may also impose obstacles to chemistry lab class components, according to Cynthia Kinsland, a senior lecturer in the chemistry department.

“Labs are equipped with a limited number of instruments, which requires students to move about the room during an experiment,” Kinsland wrote in an email to The Sun. “Providing students with access to instruments while minimizing movement through the space will be difficult.”

Although there will be a slew of sanitary measures implemented in labs if in-person instruction resumes in the fall, the culture of teaching labs has always revolved around safety, making mask requirements a simple addition to other precautions, Kinsland added.

Prof. Cole Gilbert, entomology, plans on teaching his introductory entomology class by shipping small, inexpensive microscopes to students along with bug identification/catching kits, allowing students to complete bug collection projects wherever they are.

Out of concern for his students’ health and his own safety, Gilbert will record his lectures to eliminate the need for large in-person lectures regardless of whether classes are in-person. He added that he will also use recorded activities to help accommodate student needs.

“Students might get sick or come in contact with someone who tests positive and needs to go be isolated for two weeks. That means even if we are in person, they will start missing class. Having activities recorded so that they can catch up is a goal for all instructors this fall,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert, as director of the undergraduate biology program, expressed concerns over students missing out on learning certain technical skills if they do not have hands-on experience in labs next semester.

“Learning how to do techniques — that’s what is going to get you a job,” Gilbert said. “If you took a lab and can say you can do [polymerase chain reaction] or microscopy, that could get you a job doing research. That requires being in a lab.”

Despite the challenges, Sarvary is optimistic that remote courses will go more smoothly in the fall than they did in the spring.

“In the spring, it was emergency remote instruction,” Sarvary said. “We didn’t have much time to adapt our courses, the students didn’t have much time to adapt their learning styles. Now we have more time to plan.”