Professors develop ‘innovative’ ways to continue laboratory instruction in fall term

Photo by Cooper Baskins
Megan Baus, a second-year chemical engineering student, said she is a little wary about having in-person labs this fall term.

Sukhjot Sal, News Contributor

Though the COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of uncertainty regarding the safe implementation of laboratories in the upcoming fall term, instructors are working to ensure students are given the best possible academic experience in a way that would reduce the number of students present in each lab.

“Our first priority is public health safety for all. Participants in labs and recitations that take place on-site will be expected to follow all guidelines including wearing face coverings and practicing appropriate physical distancing. The academic units offering these courses will continue to work over the summer on specific solutions, given the diversity of lab/activity spaces we have,” said Alix Gitelman, vice provost for the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Gitelman said The Continuity Management Team is also considering the importance of face-to-face experiences for first-year and transfer students, the importance of capstone experiences for graduating seniors and needed in-person research activities for graduate students.

“Decisions about specific spaces and course activities are on-going within academic units and in consultation with faculty. Because the reassignment of classroom spaces to accommodate physical distancing guidelines is a complicated process, we will likely make updates to the schedule of classes throughout the summer,” Gitelman said.

Paul Emigh, a physics instructor at Oregon State University, said the physics department and other instructors in the College of Science have had extensive discussions about what courses should look like in the fall. For instructors, Emigh said, the wellbeing of students, teaching assistants and instructors is the top priority.

In regards to physics courses, Emigh said for “the large lecture courses in physics, the plan right now is for all lectures, studios, recitations and labs to be done remotely. We do run an honors section of physics 212 in the fall, and then the continuing course into the next year, which may be run kind of in a hybrid style. That’s, I think, what is currently on the schedule, although that all is pending, you know, developments in the fall.”

Emigh said many instructors in the College of Science use interactive pedagogies, even in lecture portions of classes, which usually expect students to work in small groups on shared projects—methods that would not align well with social distancing procedures. Thus, Emigh said even though Zoom has some drawbacks, it is a superior way to deliver effective pedagogy when compared to the limited instruction they could have in reduced in-person, socially-distanced classes. 

“I know that, in talking with some colleagues in biology and chemistry, both of them have had more trouble than us in transitioning their labs to be remote, but they still managed it. And I know also that some of the upper-level courses—and that includes some of the physics courses and would include other disciplines—they’ve had more trouble trying to figure out how to go remote fully with labs. But again, we’ve all been managing it, because that’s what we need to do to keep people safe,” Emigh said.

For lectures and recitations, Emigh said students can still discuss and problem solve through Zoom in breakout rooms.

“One of the tools that has been critical in allowing us to make that transition effectively has been the use of undergraduate learning assistants, which a wide variety of courses in both the College of Science and other colleges have been adopting, and I think it’s becoming even more important with the switch to remote teaching,” Emigh said.

For labs, Emigh said they have both an array of online simulations and “real equipment” labs that people can do with things around the house. For example, in some areas of introductory physics, it is possible for students to make a ramp with items from around the house and roll an object down it to obtain data that can be analyzed. For more advanced subjects like electricity and magnetism, online interactive simulation tools have been very useful for classes, according to Emigh.

Michael Burand, general chemistry laboratory coordinator, is the main instructor for the CH 2xx laboratory courses. He said instructors are working to develop innovative ways to maintain the hands-on and pedagogical aspects of a guided-inquiry approach to laboratory instruction while keeping students safe.

“Fortunately for us, prior to the remote term this spring we were already using several online technologies in our laboratory courses—electronic laboratory handouts, online assignment submissions and several laboratory videos created here at OSU—which made the transition to remote instruction smoother for us and our students. Although this fall we plan to offer an in-person laboratory experience to the extent possible, we can make aspects of the laboratory course remote as needed to ensure COVID-19 distancing compliance and student safety,” Burand said in an email.

According to Burand, safety remains faculty’s number one priority in the chemistry laboratory, and though COVID-19 has not changed that, it has added new challenges.

“We will adhere to OSU’s policies regarding physical distancing, face covering, etc. that went into effect on June 14, 2020. A well-run chemistry laboratory already has a high level of cleanliness and chemical hygiene: Protective clothing, goggles and injunctions against eating or drinking have always been in place in our laboratories, and we are confident we can implement the extra measures needed for COVID-19 compliance in a way that will keep our instructors, TAs, staff and students safe,” Burand said.

Currently, faculty are focused on reducing the number of students physically present in each of laboratory rooms when needed. Instead of attending weekly labs, students will attend their laboratory sessions in person every other week and participate remotely during the alternate weeks, Burand said. By splitting students into two groups—one to attend in person during odd weeks and the other to attend in person during even weeks—it would allow faculty to continue to offer a large number of students the option to enroll in the course, while having only half the usual number of students physically present during a given week, Burand added.

“This is a particularly compelling option since all students would still have the chance to gain hands-on laboratory experience, and we would incorporate some of the techniques we implemented this spring to ensure students could still actively participate during weeks they would be attending the laboratory remotely. Of course, with COVID-19 we understand things can still change rapidly, and if so, we will update our instructional strategy as need be,” Burand said.

Megan Baus, a second-year chemical engineering student, said she is a little wary about having in-person labs. 

“I know given this past spring term, I was finishing up the general [chemistry] series and having lab for that is—it’s hard, you know, doing things when it comes down to writing your big lab report for a term on a lab that you’ve never done; it’s frustrating. There’s a piece of information that you feel like you’re missing always,” Baus said.

Baus said having labs and recitation meetings over Zoom are not ideal for her as many students log on and do not talk. She also said many students can feel left out of the class if they do not have access to video or microphone capabilities.

“But a lot of those students feel completely left out of discussion, because not everyone is wanting to scroll through the chat all the time. So it makes it really difficult to actually have good participation and [make] connections within the class,” Baus said.

According to Baus, though she feels most people would prefer to do labs in person, she thinks everyone needs to remember there are a lot of students in groups that are at a higher risk when it comes to illnesses like COVID-19. Because of that, she said, it is important to work on making adequate online alternatives to ensure every student learns at the same level.

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