We all know STEM students cherish their lab courses. Labs provide a more hands-on learning experience than typical schoolwork, involving sensitive equipment, uncertainty about outcomes, and skills that students may apply to future careers. Unfortunately, all the aspects of labs that make them so exciting also make them very difficult to teach remotely.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University’s natural science departments have offered a mix of in-person and remote lab activities since spring 2020. Professors, especially those teaching lower-level lab classes, replaced some in-person activities with online lab simulations.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Anisha Gupta, who taught the organic chemistry lab during the fall 2020 semester, secured funding from the Academic Affairs Department for all students to access a virtual lab simulator program called “Beyond Labz.” According to Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Carla Coste Sanchez, who taught the spring 2021 semester of this lab course, Beyond Labz allowed students to make mistakes in a low-risk environment and then try the reaction again. This made it safe for them to work with less oversight than would be necessary in a physical lab.
“In the lab, obviously, we’re a lot more wary of [whether we’re] using the right reagents,” Sanchez said. “[The professors and TAs] put out exactly what you need.”
Beyond Labz also gave students more time to explore. Since the simulator sped up slow processes such as boiling reagents or developing chromatography plates, students could also complete more reactions in a single class period.
“For the online section, sometimes we would add more reaction analysis,” Sanchez said. “We would say [to] do it with these three reagents and see the different outcome…. In a four-hour [in-person] lab, there’s only so much we can do because there’s that time component.”
The lab class accompanying the University’s introductory biology course (BIOL181), taught by Professor of the Practice in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Michelle Murolo, also used a hybrid curriculum in fall 2020 and spring 2021. Because classroom capacities were limited, students spent half their class periods in the lab and half in virtual meetings.
Ahmed Almohamed ’24, who took the lab “Principles of Biology,” said he did not find the simulations very informative.
“It was more like playing an online game to me than learning,” Almohamed said.
Assistant Professor of the Practice in Physics Min-Feng Tu teaches “Introductory Physics Laboratory I,” which students generally take alongside the “Introductory Physics I” if they do not plan to major in physics. Tu mentioned that online physics experiments did not require as much troubleshooting or creativity as in-person labs.
“It’s always easier to do the experiment online with the simulators because it’s just very clear what is what,” Tu said. “There’s always a label saying this is a resistor, this is a capacitor, and you can just drag and do things… It’s easier compared to in the lab, where you need to…do a little bit of exploring.”
Tu added that performing experiments at home, as her remote students did last year, was less illuminating than working in controlled lab conditions. For example, one of her experiments demonstrates that the quantity of momentum in a closed system is conserved. Normally, students observe this through cart collisions on the Physics Department’s low-friction track. However, because remote students had to use toy cars and other supplies they found at home, the cars lost some momentum due to friction, making it difficult to effectively illustrate the principle.
The University’s other introductory physics lab course, “General Physics Laboratory I,” designed for aspiring physics majors, also involved some makeshift experiments. Students met with a partner in their own time and used available materials for experiments.
Carlo Arnoldi ’24 withdrew from this course after several weeks, disappointed that there was not more access to scientific equipment and a more structured schedule for the coursework.
“[I remember] from back in high school, doing labs—they are legitimately fun,” Arnoldi said. “It’s just, what happened the first semester of my freshman year was not that.”
Although social distancing requirements forced some of these courses online, there were cases where lab space was available to professors. In these cases, they often put in extra hours to accommodate the smaller class sizes required by social distancing.
“I felt it was very important that we do everything in our power to make sure that we were safe, so teaching an extra section was just like, ‘Of course we will,’” Professor of the Practice in Chemistry Andrea Roberts said.
At times, professors also adapted their courses to free up lab space for other groups. Associate Professor of the Practice in Chemistry Anthony Davis said the chemistry department prioritized lab space for higher-level courses, since younger students would have the chance to catch up in future years. As the professor for the introductory chemistry lab course in the fall of 2020, Davis developed a fully remote curriculum so that the intermediate-level lab courses for “Organic Chemistry” could use a hybrid model and the upper-level “Integrated Chemistry Lab” could be fully in person.
When in-person lab sessions were available or became available, students said they attended with excitement. Crystal Peña ’24 took the introductory biology lab course in fall 2020 and spring 2021 and was enthusiastic about conducting in-person polymerase chain reactions (PCR) given their relevance to COVID-19 testing. She also said practice was essential for learning certain technical skills.
“[Using a micropipette] is not hard, but it is a procedure,” Peña said. “There’s definitely a right way to do it…. There was one pre-lab lecture where Dr. Murolo taught us how to pipette, but it didn’t click until I was in the lab and actually doing it.”
In-person labs also seem to bolster 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 pre-med track.
“Applying biology and seeing the things in person, even if it was limited and we had only a few students in the lab, really helped me [and] assured me that this was the right path for me,” Halaka said.
On the other hand, chemistry students who took “Introductory Chemistry Laboratory” remotely last year seem more uncertain in their current “Organic Chemistry Laboratory” classes.
“Students are way more wary to try things,” Sanchez said. “I’m fielding 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 provide a more detailed understanding of advanced techniques. These courses were even more difficult to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions.
Physics Chair Fred Ellis teaches “Electronics Lab,” a course where upper-level physics students learn to build analog and digital circuits.
He held the course in-person during spring 2021, but improvised after the March 2020 shutdown by mailing a kit containing a breadboard, a battery, and a set of circuit components to each student’s home. Students then built circuits in Zoom breakout rooms and discussed the projects with partners. Ellis said using physical equipment, wrestling with technical challenges, and refining processes are core parts of the course, making the hands-on experience essential.
“Building up a skill of tracing down what’s wrong with something is what we really teach people in laboratory physics,” Ellis said.
However, the Zoom setting made it hard for Ellis and the course TA to help students troubleshoot without experiencing it in person.
“When they were at loggerheads…we’d try to ask them questions about what wasn’t happening correctly and give them some pointers,” Ellis said. “If worse came to worst, they would hold the little circuit board up to the camera, which was not a high resolution, and we’d try to squint and see where their wires were going and what might be connected wrong.”
Roberts also emphasized the importance of hands-on experience when teaching “Integrated Chemistry Laboratory I” in the fall of 2020. The course is designed to prepare juniors and seniors majoring in chemistry for possible graduate work or industry careers, and Roberts held all lab sessions in person. When students had to spend time in quarantine, groups redistributed their workload. Students who were temporarily working remotely focused on literature research and made suggestions for 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,” Roberts said. “So that person would be there, watching everything that was going on, and contributing from the literature aspect.”
Roberts said she was impressed with students’ willingness to adapt.
“The creativity and the flexibility that the students had in ‘Integrated [Chemistry Lab I]’ in the fall was astonishing,” Roberts said. “I never thought it would go that well.”
Anne Kiely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.