Thomas Cristofoletti/The New York Times

Gone are the days of online lab simulations — students must now pipette their own samples.

September 27, 2021

Cornellians Reflect on Challenges of Online Lab Courses, Express Excitement for In-Person Instruction

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As many courses transitioned smoothly from in person to online instruction at the start of the pandemic, Cornell laboratory instructors completely transformed their courses to accommodate for the lack of one key component — hands-on learning. 

Now back in person, both students and professors expressed enthusiasm about the return to normalcy in the laboratory.  

“The pedagogy is so much better in person,” said Prof. Cole Gilbert, entomology. “I like teaching and meeting students, especially in a lab class. It’s a place where we can see who might have good hands and who’s a good thinker, and maybe [if] they’re interested in working in our labs.”

As the online instructor of Entomology 2120: Insect Biology in spring 2021, Gilbert said that students did not get to practice the essential hands-on skills of looking at insects with advanced laboratory microscopes. Still, Gilbert said he tried his best to make the most of the limitations of virtual lab instruction.

Gilbert ordered his students digital microscopes that connect to a laptop by a USB cable, allowing students to view specimens as a dynamic image on their computer screen. While not as complex as the equipment used for in-person labs, the digital microscopes still had a wide array of functions to facilitate learning, such as recording videos of specimens students were viewing. 

Even with equipment in place, students had to overcome another barrier to learning in an online entomology lab — finding bugs to look at. Typically, students can observe specimens that the University provides.

But Gilbert explained that for remote labs, students were sent supplies — such as a bug net, killing jar or collection box — to collect their own insects to view in their microscopes. Students had to venture into their yards and scavenge for insects to learn about ecological diversity as well as insects’ behavioral characteristics. 

For some experiments, data collection was another challenge to replicate online, Gilbert said. Data that students collect on their own is often imperfect, with outliers and obscure data points that students must account for. 

To account for these outliers, Gilbert prepared artificial data sets so students could have a similar feel as if they were collecting it themselves with experimental error.  

Now that students can perform their own procedures again, some — like Archana Sadangi  ’22 — said they are excited to have more authority in their learning.

“Being back in person makes it feel more like a lab class again, as opposed to a different kind of lecture class,” Sadangi said. 

The lecture format of lab classes involved professors performing the lab for students. Now that students are back to completing the procedure on their own, they are a lot more involved with the learning process.

As a student of Molecular Biology and Genetics 4400: Laboratory in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Sadangi said she can set up her own experiments and collect results, which allow her to understand how lab techniques work on a deeper level.

“It is closer to if we were in an actual research lab, where we are learning to do all of the techniques on top of the conceptual background information,” Sadangi said.

According to Sadangi, online laboratory courses focused on experimental design and walked students through each step. Now, Sadangi and her classmates must carefully set up and practice their own experiments — a more challenging yet enriching experience. 

Though Sadangi said the concepts were taught well online, she said if she were asked to go into a lab and perform it without looking up information, she would struggle to do so. 

“It’s different when you have actually done something versus when you’ve seen it done,” Sadangi said.

Despite the hurdles Gilbert and his students had to overcome in his online course, Gilbert said he was impressed by the way students adapted and succeeded in the class.

“[We made] the best of a bad situation,” Gilbert said.