Michelle Li / Sun Contributor

Students will pre-enroll in spring classes later in December. Like the fall semester, they will choose between multiple course modalities.

October 26, 2020

Virtual Lab Components Have a Future Post-COVID Say Cornell Professors

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While many professors have used online simulations instead of physical laboratories to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, some think that simulations they are using now could be helpful in the future.

According to some Cornell professors, simulations have the potential to make laboratory education more accessible to students who do not have access to in-person lab spaces. While many faculty prefer hands-on, in-person instruction, virtual laboratory classes can still help teach the scientific method and other key concepts.

Prof. Mark Sarvary, biology, is one such professor. According to Sarvary, simulations help with online learning and have benefits even when classes are in-person. Sarvary teaches Biology 1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory, a class focused on the scientific method, laboratory skills and science communication. Sarvary has long used Simbio lab simulations, which provides virtual lab activities for the life sciences in which students can design, run and collect data, as part of his course.

An example of SimBio's virtual labs, covering darwinian evolution in snails.

Courtesy of SimBio

An example of SimBio’s virtual labs, covering darwinian evolution in snails.

“[Students] can easily make mistakes and correct them, which is much harder in a real laboratory setting after we set up an experiment,” Sarvary said. “They don’t need to wait a week or two for the algae populations to grow and realize they made a mistake. Instead, it happens in two clicks on the computer.”

Chibuike Amadi ‘24, a student in BIOG 1500, enjoys the efficiency of online labs and the ability to conduct experiments that would otherwise be difficult in person, such as interpreting how elephants receive sound waves. However, Amadi has noticed that the large Zoom calls have prompted a significant decrease in student participation in comparison to in-person labs.

“We were able to run experiments we wouldn’t be equipped to run during in person labs,” Amadi said. He adds that often “the teacher will ask a question, and no one…will answer while in-person [students] would have more confidence in themselves to answer those questions.”

While some students enjoy simulated labs, others find the experience frustrating, and are looking forward to a return to in-person instruction.

Even with a sophisticated platform and new experiments, a three-hour zoom call can be a challenge. BIOG 1500 student Eva Dani ‘24 misses the hands-on experience of lab work as well as in-person collaboration. For Dani, online labs can feel more like video games than science, which makes learning more difficult for her.

“I feel like I’m not retaining information, it’s just more detached for me,” Dani said.

Labs that rely on collaboration among peers can become awkward according to Dani, who said that it can be difficult for instructors to encourage class participation in a virtual setting.

Like many of his students, Sarvary is looking forward to when it is safe to return to the labs. But Sarvary nevertheless said he sees simulations as a new potential strategy for making classwork more accessible to students that have missed class or have fallen behind.

“The simulations can really help students stay in touch with the course, and make sure that they are not missing out on some components just because they are physically unable to be in the laboratories,” Sarvary said.

One field where simulation use is a job skill in addition to a teaching tool is engineering. According to Prof. Rajesh Bhaskaran, mechanical engineering, simulations in engineering classes can help prepare students for the workforce.

Bhaskaran works with Ansys, an engineering simulation company, to develop simulation modules for a range of Cornell classes — including heat transfer, thermo-fluidics, intermediate fluid dynamics, wind energy, and a biomechanics laboratory.

Prof. Rajesh Bhaskaran has spent his career aiming to change the traditional engineering education.

Courtesy of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open Learning

Prof. Rajesh Bhaskaran has spent his career aiming to change the traditional engineering education.

“When these engineers graduate from college and go out into the real world, simulation tools are the things that they are going to be using to apply the physics concepts they have learned in school,” said Kylie Howland, who works for Ansys.

Bhaskaran found his 20 years of experience developing e-learning and simulations for courses to be particularly helpful as he helped other Cornell instructors adapt their classes for the online transition, including a course on wind power.

“Students were doing the testing [of turbines] in the wind tunnel last year, but this year, they are not going into the wind tunnel, because of COVID,” Bhaskaran said. “They are testing their designs in simulations.”

Even when in-person instruction becomes safe again, Bhaskaran thinks that using simulations can make complex concepts easier for students to understand and engineering education more accessible for the general public.

“My vision is democratization of simulations,” Bhaskaran said.