Lab Courses Bringing Their Own Unique Challenges to the Online Learning Model

by Jon Foster
Office of University Communications intern
  • Hla Win-Piazza, the CHEM 354 lab coordinator, works with her class in the lab via Zoom.
    Hla Win-Piazza, the CHEM 354 lab coordinator, works with her class in the lab via Zoom.

Western’s transition to online coursework and instruction for spring quarter was not an easy task; in lieu of in-person education, courses have had to adjust their class structure to overcome the challenges the pandemic has posed. Those challenges have uniquely affected lab courses in the biology and chemistry departments.

Dan van Hees, an instructor in Western’s Biology Department, is currently teaching BIO 101 and BIO 326, an ecology lab. Both of these courses have lab components that normally require students to meet in person in order to run experiments and collect data.

Previously, BIO 326 was primarily a field science course that met two times a week for an hour-long lecture and an hour-long lab component once a week based around fieldwork and gathering data. The quarter was broken down into two sections: the first half was a research project about stream ecology that continues quarter to quarter, and the second half is the student’s individual research project.

“Things look completely different now,” van Hees said. “We had to cut out the field work. That was something we struggled with.”

Van Hees said he worked with Professor of Biology David Hooper to design the course structure for spring quarter. They laid out their goals of the course and how they could best meet those. It became clear that it would not be possible to do the field work with everything online.

“When we talked about it, the nuts and bolts of the class is asking students to design and run an experiment,” van Hees said. “We turned the whole quarter into a one long group project. It gives us the liberty to go deeper into scientific concepts that we don’t normally get to cover.”


General Lab Science Courses Do Without Student Collected Data

BIO 101 and CHEM 161 are introductory lab courses that have hundreds of students registered each quarter. Each course consists of a large lecture and weekly labs. Van Hees and Georgianne Connell, a senior instructor in Western’s Biology Department, teach the lectures while six graduate teaching assistants run the labs.

At the start of the quarter, Connell and van Hees wanted to run the experiments for the students but quickly realized it was too much work. Instead, they chose to use data collected in previous quarters and have the teaching assistants simulate the labs online.

“The teaching assistants record the prelab and then help the students work through their problems,” van Hees said.

Benjamin Haagen, a biology graduate student at Western from Snohomish, is currently one of the teaching assistants for BIO 101. He said he was a little nervous about teaching the lab online, but also excited to learn more about online teaching and the challenges it brings.

During the first week of labs, students were having issues accessing course material and doing the assigned work, so the teaching assistants made the decision to move to asynchronous lectures. They also started rotating which teaching assistant records the lecture and lab materials for the week.

“Splitting up the responsibilities helped to reduce the workload,” Haagen said. “It’s been very interesting because it has changed my schedule. My teaching responsibilities have shifted from a face-to-face teaching role to a facilitation of lab materials and trying to catch all of the questions and lack of understanding.”

For CHEM 161, the shift online has been slightly different. In previous quarters, half of the labs were already online. Students were placed in leading and lagging lab sections and would meet in person biweekly. When they didn’t meet in person, they would go online and do the lab for the week.

Amy Cully has been the lab coordinator for all of the general chemistry labs from CHEM 161 to CHEM 163, CHEM 333, as well as the Honors Chemistry sequence for the last six years. She said while the previous experience of doing half of the CHEM 161 labs online helped with the transition, it was still a difficult process.

“Transitioning everything online and getting images and video of our existing experiments has been challenging,” Cully said. “Without being able to get into our labs and record ourselves doing the work or taking pictures at specific points during each experiment, it has been a really challenging process.”

Cully and the teaching assistants have incorporated the online lab materials that were already in place as well as some of the lab lectures made during the snow weeks that closed Western’s campus the last two years. Now, the students follow prerecorded videos and pictures of the lab and then answer the written lab questions online.

“We decided early on that we didn’t want to have our students bouncing around to a bunch of websites and different places for the labs,” Cully said. “That did limit, somewhat, the content we can provide. But we knew the most important thing was just to focus on student learning.”

The chemistry department is working hard to make a bad situation as good as it can be. I’m proud of the work we have done.

Matt Smiley, a Western graduate student from Pullman, is the teaching assistant for CHEM 163 this quarter. Last quarter, students were expected to come into the lab with general knowledge about how to perform an experiment and operate in a lab setting. Smiley said the biggest change to the lab this quarter is the lack of kinesthetic learning.

Much like in CHEM 161 and the BIO 101 labs, CHEM 163 lab students are still analyzing data generated from the experiments. However, they are unable to see the experiments that are run normally in person. Now, the teaching assistants describe the narrative of the lab and data collection, and then the students do their analysis online.

“In previous quarters, students in the lab were working in groups and could answer the lab questions together,” Smiley said. “Now, they have to give precise information on how they got the answer. This helps to highlight spots where students are having difficulty understanding an underlying concept.”

Transitioning lab science courses has brought about its own challenges and issues. However, it has also allowed professors and teaching assistants to adjust their courses and learn more about how their students are doing.

“The chemistry department is working hard to make a bad situation as good as it can be,” Smiley said. “I’m proud of the work we have done.”

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Tuesday, June 2, 2020 - 9:23am