The trials and tribulations of virtual science labs
Associate News Editor
With classes now online due to coronavirus, science labs seem to have lost their full experience.
Trevor Daly, an assistant professor of chemistry, said that he met with his team to work out strategies for dealing with online science labs.
Daly is one of the chemistry professors for the Integrated Biology and Chemistry (iBC) classes. This is a “course series that integrates the instruction of Biology and Chemistry courses and labs for life science majors,” the iBC website states.
“I don’t teach the labs directly,” Daly said. “In the course that I teach, CHEM108, I’m the instructor, but we have preceptors and mostly graduate students who directly teach the labs.”
Daly said that his labs are still going on through Zoom and that every week the style of the labs will be different. This can be looking at case studies, real-world examples, recordings of the lab procedures and then taking notes on those, Daly continued.
Case studies are looking at third-party scientists doing similar experiments and then taking notes on that, Daly explained.
Daly said that there is normally a big project in the spring semester that involves going out to fields to collect water samples and do various types of scientific analysis on them. He said that what happened instead “was one of the preceptors went out into the field and did all the experiments the students would have done.”
“We really had to ask ourselves what our goals are for the students in the labs,” Daly said. “The hands-on experience has always been a goal, but I think the more important goal is to learn how to analyze data and design an experiment.”
Daly has four preceptors: Anne McDuell, Deborah Lichti, Jennifer Sykes and Pamela Mosley. McDuell and Lichti explained their roles, their specific strategies for moving labs online and how they are trying to support their students.
McDuell explained that a preceptor is “an odd title” and that “not many people know what it is.” She said the position falls somewhere between a professor and a teaching assistant, (TA).
“At a lot of institutions, you could call us ‘education specialists,’” McDuell said. “We do teach a portion of the course for introductory biology and chemistry, but we’re more involved with the labs.”
Although the preceptors still attend and listen to the lectures, their main job is to design the labs and everything that comes with it such as the content, assignments and rubrics, McDuell said.
The preceptors train the TAs on how to do the labs, but the TAs are the ones who are ultimately responsible for grading, not the preceptors, McDuell said. However, the preceptors do teach “studio,” which is analogous to a recitation and is more skill-based than the normal lectures.
“It’s been hard,” McDuell said. “We had the added challenge that [the university] shut [the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory] down, so we left not knowing if we’d be able to come back and collect any equipment.”
Lichti said she was able to obtain some equipment such as laboratory probes and thermometers because they “were easy to handle.” She did not want to take anything that would involve toxic chemicals or be too dangerous to carry without protective gear. She was also able to purchase some scientific field kits at the last minute.
Lichti said that she gave the students a “citizen science” project, which involved the students going into their backyards and observing “the phase changes of the trees through the spring.”
“That’s something really easy to do and doesn’t require any equipment,” Lichti said. “If they have the plants in their backyards, they can just walk outside and do it.”
Lichti said that the citizen science assignment helped the team buy some time to strategize for the remainder of the semester. She said the main issue was that right as the university closed down, iBC was about to move into aquatic ecology, a heavy unit in which most of the experiments are done outside.
“We have the data from last semester, 2018 to 2019, and data from the Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control Office,” Lichti said. “Our students are going to be using those to try and answer questions that they would’ve asked with our little streams.”
McDuell said the team wanted to keep the “in-person” feel, so instead of using UD Course Capture like some other classes, the preceptors decided to use Zoom, record the lectures live and upload them to Canvas. She said this benefits students who have bandwidth issues and may not be able to attend the live lectures all the time.
“We do whatever we can to support them because [coronavirus] is just crazy,” McDuell said.
Lichti said that the syllabus has not changed too drastically. The schedule was shifted back due to the extended spring break. Additionally, participation points and the lab safety points were cut because both are “nearly impossible to monitor” in a virtual setting.
They did not want to make attendance mandatory because they understand that students have their own personal and familial issues to deal with, Lichti went on to say.
Lichti said that the TAs and preceptors are there to support the students in any way they can.
“Anytime our students need a meeting, we can have Zoom meetings with them, and we try to respond to emails as quickly as we can, so we really tried not to lose that connection with our students,” Lichti said. “We haven’t disappeared from their lives and I think most of them appreciate that.”
McDuell, Lichti and Mosley all agreed that the hardest part has been that they are not able to do everything that they would like to.
“We’ve definitely had to be very strategic with the kinds of things we do and how we do them because everything, even meetings, take longer,” McDuell said. “Also somehow and I don’t know how, but it’s more taxing on your brain to decipher everything going on.”
McDuell said that for most classes they removed the methodology explanation on projects because she did not think it was fair to ask the students to come up with a method if they were not able to physically do the lab.
“We utilize the breakout rooms on Zoom and I feel like that’s been a big thing, probably for all of us,” Mosley said. “It’s just for checking in on the groups and is not only to make sure they’re focusing on the task, but also that they’re doing okay overall. I definitely pop into my rooms often.”
Lichti said that they try to focus more on particular skills.
“We always talk about what we call ‘soft skills,’ so being able to work in a group and just being able to work with the software,” Lichti said. “Even something like Excel, which is easy to use, but [our students] might struggle with it. Giving them these skills is something we’ve always tried to focus on.”
McDuell said that the preceptors give their students weekly surveys to gauge how they feel about the virtual lab setting. The issue now is that there are “only a few weeks left in the semester so there is only so much that can be changed at this point.”
“We do have weekly meetings every Monday and we take the feedback that students have been giving us and we try to implement it as much as possible,” McDuell said. “I think the hardest part is recording all the feedback and making sure that if we have to go online in the fall, and that’s a big if, we can utilize that feedback.”
Lichti said that every week she does reflections on what was done in labs that week. She wants to use the information to determine what worked and what did not.
A few students offered their opinions about virtual labs. They agree that the virtual labs are necessary given the current circumstances, but they feel as though things are not the same as before the pandemic struck.
Biana Zbarsky, a freshman pre-veterinary medicine major, is enrolled in three labs this semester for her animal anatomy, biology and chemistry classes. She said that she understands the gravity of the situation, but wishes her learning experience was better.
“I think it’s definitely less effective, but given the current circumstances, there’s not much [my professors] can really do,” Zbarsky said.
Zbarsky said that her anatomy lab has been especially difficult since it is designed to be a very hands-on experience, particularly with dissections.
“We were dissecting cats,” Zbarsky said. “I think actually being able to do the dissections is important.”
Zbarsky said her anatomy professor is trying to figure out whether keeping the dissections around for a later point would be feasible. The reasoning being that the students could at least see the completed dissections in-person at some point, if physically doing them is now impossible, she went on to say.
Zbarsky said that her professors searched for videos of other professors from other universities doing the relevant experiments. In addition to the videos, her biology labs are done virtually through McGraw-Hill Connect, a course management program run by the New York-based science education publisher of the same name.
Although the videos and virtual labs are helpful, they only give “a basic understanding” of the concepts, Zbarsky continued to say.
“I think my professors were planning to record their own labs, but everything closed down so they couldn’t get anything they needed,” Zbarsky said.
She said her biology and chemistry labs are pretty much in the same position, but she finds those slightly more effective than anatomy.
Zbarsky agrees with Daly that understanding how to do the concepts is important, but she believes that virtual learning and verbal explanations cannot replace the hands-on aspects.
“I feel as though the physical experience is necessary and that students are now missing out,” Zbarsky said.
Nicholas Cameron, a freshman chemical engineering major, believes that there is still a “disconnect” with the hands-on experience, but he feels as though the online setting is semi-effective.
“I think it’s alright,” Cameron said. “The professors and TAs are just giving us the data and we have to analyze and interpret the data independently using the software we were given.”
Cameron is currently enrolled in Physics 207 and said most of his labs involved moving carts with motion sensors and gathering data based on the various tests.
Like Zbarsky, Cameron’s lab class is primarily conducted through videos, but these are pre-recorded by the professor. The videos show how to do the experiments, but the lack of physicality is still there.
Cameron believes that the professors and TAs are handling the situation well given the current circumstances. However, he said that he prefers doing the labs in person because it is easier to visualize the experiments and if something goes wrong, he can learn what the issue is and correct it.
“It’s frustrating, but [the videos] are definitely more effective than just sitting and reading the lab manual,” Cameron said.
Cameron said that he feels lucky to only be missing out on a physics lab. However, Cameron said he is concerned about the chemistry labs he will need to take further into his college career because he is unsure if the university will reopen next semester.
Janna Rus, a sophomore occupational therapy major, is taking the labs for the iBC course this semester.
“I think it’s definitely more difficult since we’re not able to actually perform the labs which allows us hands-on experience,” Rus said.
Rus said that there is a lot more work and added components to balance out the lack of physical hands-on experience. This mostly consists of working with her lab partners on storyboards, graphs and discussions among other components, she went on to say.
“We have post-labs that we do for every lab,” Rus said. “I like being able to build bonds with my lab partners and the teamwork with them, but it’s just continuous after continuous post-labs.”
Rus plans to take anatomy in the future because it is relevant to her major and agrees with Zbarsky that an online format cannot replace the physicality of actually doing the dissections and looking at body parts in person.
Unlike Zbarsky and Cameron, Rus’ labs do not have a video component. Instead, everything is done entirely through Zoom, as opposed to a mix of the two. Rus believes videos would make her labs more efficient.
Rus said that for the first part of class, the professor and TA give a general explanation of the lab and all its necessary components. After about “15 to 20 minutes” the professor sends their students into “breakout rooms,” which are composed of the different lab groups.
Rus has gone to office hours with her professors and TAs and said that they are all very good at explaining concepts and helping their students to understand things.
“I have nothing against my professors, TAs or UD,” Rus said. “I know they’re trying their hardest and they’re putting in the effort, but the online format just doesn’t seem efficient. I feel like the quality of work has decreased slightly.”