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Davis, California

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Science classes modify laboratories for online learning this spring

Departments record experiments, conduct laboratories over Zoom

Pipettes, beakers, syringes and microscopes will not be used by students this quarter. With UC Davis’ decision to move to online learning in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, classes will not offer the same “traditional” laboratory experience this spring. Professors, teaching assistants (TAs) and other faculty worked hard to design creative online alternatives for laboratory classes. 

Most courses are hosting online alternatives to in-person labs at the scheduled class times. By using online video platforms like Zoom, students watch their TAs and professors conduct experiments, instead of doing it on their own. 

For the introductory chemistry classes offered this quarter, CHE 2B and CHE 2C, faculty in the department recorded themselves conducting some of the experiments before the campus closed, said Brian Enderle, a lecturer in the Chemistry Department. These experiments typically would have been done by students in labs. Faculty edited the videos for students to watch during Zoom video calls with their TAs. Although students will not actually be completing the labs themselves, the TAs will talk them through the concepts and how to best analyze the data. 

In these videos, the Chemistry Department mimics the usual flow of the lab and focuses on teaching students concepts. The hope is for students to gain a similar understanding of laboratory concepts, but they will not get the same practice with scientific equipment, Enderle said. 

“This is the best of a difficult situation,” Enderle said. “We are doing our best but it will not be actually the same as using a pipette or [developing] glassware techniques that they would have in the lab. We can’t mimic and can’t send a bunch of glassware to your house.”

Classes in other departments, such as biological sciences, have implemented similar setups. In BIS 2B, an introductory biology class about evolution and ecology, labs have moved to online platforms, said Ivana Li, a staff research associate and the BIS 2B lab manager, via email. 

“Like everyone else, all of our content is online,” Li said. “This means a lot of the experimental and interactive parts of the lab cannot be done. We’ve opted to create laboratory videos as the substitute for our in-person labs.”

Since BIS 2B already has established course concepts outlined for each laboratory, Li worked closely with the course coordinator to make sure the concepts are met in the videos. Like with  chemistry labs, Li said she worries students may not develop the necessary skills they normally would by physically going to lab.

“What is lost is likely not knowledge, but experience,” Li said. “For instance, students will understand the concept of forming a hypothesis. However, since they are not able to do the lab experiments themselves, they will have less practice forming those hypotheses and fewer opportunities to discuss what makes a good hypothesis.”

Unlike chemistry, some BIS 2B lab sessions may include a do-it-yourself component for students to complete at home. Usually in biology labs, tools and specimens are provided to students, so Li and other faculty are trying to include hands-on components to labs as much as possible. Most experiments, however, will only be put into an observation context through video.

Similarly, in California Floristics and Angiosperms Systematics and Evolution, Dan Potter, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, is hoping to have students work with real flowers that they collect on their own, making it closer to the usual lab experience. 

“Normally, we have a lot of fresh plant material that we bring into the labs for the students to look at,” Potter said. “So it’s a very hands on lab in a normal year.”

Zoom video meetings will be held for the labs in these plant science classes. Images of flowers will be integrated into the videos instead of having students examine only plant material. Usually, the labs have been five hours, but this quarter they will be split into two groups that meet for two hours each. Due to the new format and shorter laboratory period, this course will cover less material.

“We usually in both of these courses cover a whole lot of different plant families and we just decided to scale back on that a little bit so there’s not quite as many different things that they have to be trying to learn without being able to see the fresh material,” Potter said. 

For the chemistry laboratory videos, piecing all of the clips together and adding a voiceover proved difficult, Enderle said. Also, if the faculty were unable to record a particular part of a laboratory, they have to now create or find an animation. 

“It was a big blitz and a bunch of unorganized clips so the editing is a long process,” Enderle said. “It’s a melee of trying to put everything together. The labs and exams are the most difficult parts.” 

Another difficult aspect of this transition was organizing materials for the TAs, since not everyone had all of the necessary equipment, Enderle said. Additionally, the department expects both students and TAs to face many technical difficulties and will be very understanding of those who have issues. 

“I like that post I saw from UC Davis: Keep calm and Aggie on,” Enderle said. “Basically to me that means, do your best to work out the technical difficulties you have. There will be internet going out, glitches and technical difficulties that both can and cannot be predicted.” 

Lab modifications have also made it hard to know what resources and access to technology each student has, Li said. Some experiments usually incorporated into laboratories were deemed too difficult to adapt to an online lesson, so the BIS 2B faculty had to adopt different methods for teaching those concepts.

“Do they have access to the outdoors so that they can measure plants outside?” Li said. “Are their laptops robust enough to run a modeling program? Everything has to be accessible, but it also has to fit the course concepts.”

For the chemistry classes, although the actual laboratory will be taught differently than previous quarters, pre-labs and post-labs completed before and after lab sessions will be the same, Enderle said.

“As far as the lab that they are getting graded on, they are having the same experience as any other student any other quarter,” Enderle said. 

For students to be successful in the online laboratory courses, they must be self-disciplined and good at managing their schedule on their own. Some students may find online learning more challenging than attending classes in person, Li said. 

“I think a student who is able to apply abstract concepts easily will do well in the class,” Li said. “Students who benefit more from hands-on learning may struggle.”

As the country faces challenges with preventing the spread of COVID-19, Potter said it is important for both students and professors to be flexible as laboratories undergo constant modifications.

“I think to some extent, we just have to accept that it’s not going to be the same, and [students] are not going to get the same kind of hands-on experience that they would otherwise get,” Potter said. 

Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — science@theaggie.org 

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