Science & Technology

Lab classes move online, revamped for distance learning

Laboratory classes have long depended on hands-on teaching, the kind that instructors can no longer provide as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes the Fall semester online. Lab skills, however, remain an essential component of many science degrees, prompting professors to develop creative solutions to ensure that students can continue to learn a variety of skills, both on and off the lab bench.

According to Danielle Vlaho, an academic associate in the Department of Chemistry who is coordinating the switch to online labs, students taking general chemistry will require “take-home” lab kits. The kits will allow students to run experiments over Zoom, under the supervision of teaching assistants. Students will continue to submit lab reports and take online quizzes. 

For some courses, instructors like Vlaho also plan on filming themselves completing lab work to walk students through experimental procedures. 

“We’ll be filming interactive videos in the lab of myself doing the techniques […] so that [students] at least kind of see how techniques are done and what good form looks like,” Vlaho said in an interview with The McGill Tribune

Smartphone applications will also be used as a tool to help students perform experiments at home. Applications such as iNaturalist will be used to encourage students in BIOL 111 to take photos of plants and animals in their neighbourhood. 

“We thought we could use these tools for students to connect and to share their observations, but also to discover what kind of biodiversity they have around them,” Léa Blondel, a teaching development fellow in the Department of Biology, said in an interview with the Tribune.

Computational science labs will also be reimagined. On the Office of Science Education’s webpage, professor Giulia Alberini of the Department of Computer Science explains that the practical component of COMP 202 will involve assigning students to breakout rooms on Zoom. There, students are being asked to to collaborate on presentations, peer assessments, and discussions.

For other courses, such as organic chemistry, the transition to digital platforms has proven more difficult, as many of the necessary materials are too expensive or hazardous for students to use at home. Instructors have decided that chemical theory will be taught online during the fall semester, while in-person labs are to be delayed until the winter or summer semesters.

Jean-Marc Gauthier, Director of Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratories, remains confident that the quality of teaching will not be diminished by the transition to online learning.

“You are not losing anything by getting these courses delivered remotely,” said Gauthier. “We made sure that at the end of your academic year, you will have the same preparation and the same outcomes as in a regular semester.”

Some students have voiced concerns about the accessibility of remote courses, which could disadvantage students with disabilities as well as students with limited internet access. Other students are skeptical that the plans for online labs will make up for the loss of an in-person learning experience. 

“I think [holding labs online] is going to really impact the learning experience,” Clara MacMahon, U4 Science, said in an interview with the Tribune. “You learn by doing, especially in labs [….] You need to be ‘good with your hands’ in a lab, which you can’t really improve on in front of a computer.”

Lab coordinators, however, are taking the opportunity to update and explore new ways of delivering course material. 

“[Now, online,] we’re looking at computational chemistry, rather than experimental chemistry,” Vlaho said. “It’s something that our students are not actually introduced to until much later on in their academic careers.”

Gauthier hopes that lab courses will prove to be a successful experiment in online teaching, even if that means instructors and students have to adapt to this new normal. 

“We’re preparing students to work in science, and experiments and research are about investigating something new,” Gauthier said. “That’s part of the training too. We have a new experiment here. Let’s see if it works as well as we thought.”

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