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Science Journal hero astronomy

Online Laboratory Learning

A case study on how to ensure safety and maintain high levels of learning
12 March 2021
Photo of students in the BIO 220 laboratory class.

When Penn State President Eric Barron announced that the University intended to reopen for in-person instruction last summer, Eberly College of Science instructors were already working on ways to engage students in laboratories in a safe manner while maintaining the high level of learning that the college is known for.

“We surveyed our students and found that many of them wanted to have some face-to-face instruction,” said Carla Hass, teaching professor and associate head for biology curriculum coordination. “We have worked very hard to incorporate social distancing, equipment sanitation, personal protective equipment, and everything we need to have in place for students and teaching assistants (TAs) to be safe in the lab and still have a meaningful learning experience.”

But like everything else during the COVID-19 pandemic, the key to success is the flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances. This has happened frequently since the summer semester, when laboratory safety protocols fluctuated from one person for every 315 square feet to one person for every 200 square feet and then ultimately settled at 50 percent of lab capacity for fire code.

For Hass and the TAs in the BIO 220 laboratory class, this has meant splitting the class of 20 into two groups, with each group meeting in the laboratory every other week. On the “off weeks” when students are not in the lab, a remote TA presents a series of exercises synchronously using Zoom.

When in the laboratory, students are seated across lab tables separated by sneeze guards, equipment is sanitized before and after each class, and students and instructors wear masks and plastic face shields, which are required for those who need to move freely around the lab and interact with others. The safety protocols were developed by the lab director, Dianne Burpee, and the sneeze guards were installed by the facilities manager, Aaron Knight.

“I think students understand this protocol is for our own safety,” said Luis Gonzalez, one of the TAs. “Maintaining social distancing is the most challenging practice. People unconsciously feel the need to approach each other to communicate better. It´s important to remind students to keep the distance.”

In biology, however, field work is very important. But maintaining COVID-19 safety protocols has meant that activities done in previous semesters, like filling a bus with students and going to a wetland to collect samples, now simply aren’t feasible.

“Even to go somewhere as close as Millbrook Marsh is impossible. We can’t ask the students to meet us there, and we can’t take them there ourselves,” Hass said. “What we can do is bring organisms to them, so our lab director and TAs have gone out to the field and brought the organisms back to the lab for the students to sort and identify.”

As the number of coronavirus cases on campus has risen throughout the semester, an increasing number of students have opted to attend the lab sessions remotely, in some cases because they have gone into quarantine or isolation.

“We just have to deal with a fluid situation,” Hass said. “We have protocols for remote students to work with students in lab, as well as online materials that they can then work with.”

There is also a lot of peer-to-peer learning happening between in-person students and their remote counterparts. Students are using their phones and iPads to share photos of the organisms they are observing and to discuss what they are seeing. An unexpected benefit of remote interaction is that the students have become better communicators and are engaging more with the material. Hass has also observed that students have become more thoughtful in describing what they are seeing to remote learners.

“TAs spend more time in the Zoom breakout rooms assisting with data analysis than they would have done in a standard lab,” she said. “And since students engage each other remotely, they have to be precise in their communication and more interactive than they were in the past when they were watching someone else go through the analysis.”

“I thought there would be a little more frustration from the students in the labs being paired with remote partners on assignments, but they have been great and realized this is just part of our reality right now,” said Sara Mueller, another of the course’s TAs. Looking ahead to the future of lab instruction, she said, “I think we're going to see remote options become a part of the new normal.”

According to Hass, the BIO 220 labs’ learning experience hasn’t been negatively impacted by this “new normal.”

“A number of our learning objectives involve data analysis, which can easily be done remotely,” she said. “It’s the labs that require a lot of hands-on experience, like those taught by our colleagues in the human anatomy and cadaver labs, that will have a more difficult time simulating those experiences outside the physical lab.”

On October 5, the University announced the extension of the hybrid learning format for the spring semester, and a compressed schedule has allowed instructors to plan their classes and for students to register for them.

“We were anticipating that instruction in the spring would also be partially remote, and we now have the protocols and technology in place to support this,” Hass said. “We’ll be ready!”