Argus Wesleyan | Responding to COVID-19: Laboratory course during the pandemic

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c / o Ava Nederlander, photo editor

We all know that STEM students cherish their lab classes. Labs provide a more hands-on learning experience than typical schoolwork, involving sensitive equipment, uncertainty about results, and skills that students can apply to future careers. Unfortunately, all of the aspects of labs that make them so exciting also make them very difficult to teach from a distance.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University’s natural science departments have been offering a mix of in-person and remote laboratory activities since the spring of 2020. Professors, especially those who teach laboratory courses in lower level, replaced some in-person activities with online lab simulations. .

Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Anisha Gupta, who taught in the organic chemistry lab in the fall semester of 2020, secured funding from the Department of Academic Affairs for all students to access a virtual lab simulator program called “Beyond Labz”. According to visiting assistant chemistry professor Carla Coste Sanchez, who taught the 2021 spring semester of this lab course, Beyond Labz allowed students to make mistakes in a low-risk environment and then try the reaction again. . This allowed them to work safely with less supervision than would be required in a physical lab.

“In the lab, obviously, we are much more wary of [whether we’re] using the right reagents, ”Sanchez said. “[The professors and TAs] put exactly what you need.

Beyond Labz also gave students more time to explore. Since the simulator accelerated slow processes such as boiling reagents or developing chromatography plates, students could also perform more reactions in a single class period.

“For the online section, we sometimes added more reaction analysis,” Sanchez said. “We would say [to] do it with these three reagents and see the different result…. In four hours [in-person] laboratory, there is not much we can do because there is this component of time.

The lab class accompanying the University’s Introductory Biology Course (BIOL181), taught by Practice Professor in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Michelle Murolo, also used a hybrid curriculum in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. Since classroom capacities were limited, students spent half of their class time in the lab and half in virtual meetings.

Ahmed Almohamed ’24, who attended the Principles of Biology lab, said he did not find the simulations very informative.

“For me, it was more like playing an online game than learning,” Almohamed said.

Assistant Professor of Physics Practice Min-Feng Tu teaches the “Introductory Physics I Lab”, which students usually take in parallel with the “Introductory Physics I” if they do not plan to major in physical. You mentioned that online physics experiments don’t require as much troubleshooting or creativity as in-person labs.

“It’s always easier to experience online with simulators because it’s very clear what is what,” Tu said. “There’s always a label saying it’s a resistor, a capacitor, and you can just drag and do things… It’s easier than in the lab, where you have to… do a little exploration. “

Tu added that performing experiments at home, as his remote students did last year, was less enlightening than working in controlled lab conditions. For example, one of his experiments demonstrates that the quantity of momentum in a closed system is conserved. Normally, students observe it in cart collisions on the low-friction track in the physics department. However, as distant students had to use toy cars and other supplies they found at home, the cars lost momentum due to friction, making it difficult to effectively illustrate the principle.

The other introductory course in the university’s physics laboratory, “General Physics Laboratory I”, designed for future physics graduates, also included makeshift experiments. The students met a partner at their own pace and used the material available for the experiments.

Carlo Arnoldi ’24 withdrew from this course after several weeks, disappointed that there was no more access to scientific equipment and a more structured schedule for the courses.

“[I remember] back in high school, doing labs – they’re rightfully fun, ”Arnoldi said. “It’s just that what happened in the first semester of my freshman year wasn’t that.”

While social distancing requirements forced some of these online courses, there were instances where lab space was available for faculty. In these cases, they often put in extra hours to accommodate the smaller classes required by social distancing.

“I thought it was very important that we do everything in our power to make sure we were safe, so teaching an extra section was like, ‘Oof course we will,“Practical chemistry professor Andrea Roberts said.

Sometimes teachers have also adapted their lessons to free up lab space for other groups. Associate professor of the practice of chemistry, Anthony Davis, said the chemistry department prioritizes lab space for upper-level courses, as younger students would have the opportunity to catch up in those studies. years to come. As a professor of the Introductory Chemistry Lab course in Fall 2020, Davis developed a completely distance-learning program so that mid-level “organic chemistry” lab courses could use a hybrid model and the “ top-level integrated chemistry laboratory can be fully in person.

When in-person lab sessions were available or became available, students said they enthusiastically attended. Crystal Peña ’24 took the Introductory Biology Lab course in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 and was excited to conduct Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCR) in person given their relevance to COVID-19 testing. She also said that the practice was essential to acquire certain technical skills.

“[Using a micropipette] is not difficult, but it is a procedure, ”said Peña. “There is definitely a right way to do it…. There was a pre-lab conference where Dr Murolo taught us how to pipette, but the click didn’t work until I was in the lab and actually did.

In-person labs also seem to boost students’ confidence in their skills and plans for the future. Bavly Halaka ’24 said that the introductory biology lab ‘Principles of Biology I-Laboratory”Helped him decide to stay on the premedical route.

“Applying biology and seeing things in person, even though it was limited and we only had a few students in the lab, really helped me. [and] assured me that this was the right path for me, ”said Halaka.

On the other hand, the chemistry students who followed Introductory chemistry laboratory remotely last year seem more uncertain in their “Laboratory of organic chemistry Classes.

“Students are much more reluctant to try things,” Sanchez said. “I’m answering a lot more questions of, ‘Oh, is it okay if I do this? “”

While lower level labs are certainly beneficial for students, they serve primarily to illustrate theoretical knowledge, rather than training students as research technicians. In contrast, the University’s advanced lab courses offer a more detailed understanding of advanced techniques. These courses were even more difficult to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions.

Physics President Fred Ellis teaches the “Electronics Lab,” a course where senior physics students learn how to build analog and digital circuits.

He held the course in person in the spring of 2021, but improvised after the March 2020 shutdown by sending a kit containing a mockup, battery, and set of circuit components to each student’s home. The students then built circuits in the Zoom sub-committee rooms and discussed the projects with partners. Ellis said using physical equipment, tackling technical challenges, and refining processes are essential parts of the course, making hands-on experience essential.

“Building an ability to detect what’s wrong with something is what we really teach people in laboratory physics,” Ellis said.

However, the Zoom setting made it difficult for Ellis and the course technical assistant to help students resolve issues without experiencing them in person.

“When they were at loggerheads… we would try to ask them questions about what was going wrong and give them some advice,” Ellis said. “If the worst were to happen, they would hold the little circuit board in front of the camera, which wasn’t high resolution, and we would try to squint and see where their wires were going and what could be wrongly connected. “

Roberts also stressed the importance of hands-on experience when teaching “Integrated Chemistry Lab I” in Fall 2020. The course is designed to prepare juniors and seniors majoring in chemistry for possible careers in graduate school or in industry, and Roberts organized all of the lab sessions. in person. When students had to spend time in quarantine, groups redistributed their workload. Students who were temporarily working remotely focused on documentary research and made suggestions to group members in the lab.

“[In] teams where one student was in quarantine but the others were not, they would bring the student in by Zoom, ”said Roberts. “So that person would be there, watching everything that was going on and contributing from a literary perspective. “

Roberts said he was impressed with the students’ willingness to adapt.

“The creativity and flexibility that the students had in ‘Integrated [Chemistry Lab I]’in the fall was amazing,’ said Roberts. “I never thought it would turn out so well.”

Anne Kiely can be contacted at [email protected]


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