Monday, December 4, 2023

Shoulder cams, computerized explosions: How to teach labs during a pandemic

(WYDaily/Courtesy of W&M News)
(WYDaily/Courtesy of W&M News)

The labs must go on.

Lingering concerns about COVID-19 during the autumn of 2020 brought a very different fall semester to William & Mary. Classroom instruction and discussion is being presented in a variety of forms, ranging from in-person lectures in de-densified classrooms to virtual pedagogy delivered in asynchronous and synchronous formats.

University Registrar Sallie Marchello says that a total of 3,073 undergraduates are enrolled in 144 sections of teaching labs this semester. That total doesn’t include “lab-like” classes, those that have a significant amount of out-of-classroom experience, or independent research and honors projects. William & Mary’s STEM faculty across several departments have some up with a variety of creative — and even ingenious — solutions to conducting lab sections in a pandemic.

A pivot from “old normal” classroom instruction is relatively straightforward, compared to reorganizing a class’s lab component, the whole purpose of which is to impart to the undergrad student some practical, hands-on experience — in a laboratory environment.

Dan Cristol, director of undergraduate research at the university’s Roy R. Charles Center, said that faculty have learned from the forced pivot after William & Mary went to an all-virtual delivery instruction format in mid-March. He said many faculty had to make sudden adjustments such as he did with BIOL 416, Ornithology, a lab course traditionally offered during spring semesters.

“I had to convert it — in the middle of the semester without warning —from a primarily lab class, where we do about 25 field trips, to one where the students weren’t even on campus and didn’t have binoculars anymore,” Cristol said. “That was really challenging, but this time around, I’ll at least be able to plan it, which is really, really important.”

The summer gave faculty time to plan, prepare and consult — with colleagues and with professionals from the university’s Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. They were able to sort through best practices, to figure out how their classes and labs would best fit within William & Mary’s Path Forward initiative, a collection of goals and strategies for operating the university during a global pandemic with minimal health risk.

And so, the labs carry on.

“We have had a lot of meetings over the summer with all the faculty who are involved in labs to see what would be the safest way to do this,” said Dana Lashley, senior lecturer in William & Mary’s Department of Chemistry. “Ultimately, I reached out to all the big Virginia schools and asked them, hey, how are you guys delivering organic chemistry labs?”

Lashley is just one of several chemistry faculty teaching large-enrollment classes that come with a lab component. Classes in organic chemistry, the study of carbon compounds, always draw large enrollments, as “orgo” is essential for students aimed at careers in the sciences and the health professions. Lashley has two sections of organic chemistry classes this fall with a combined enrollment of around 250. She is delivering much of the class content asynchronously, recording lectures ahead of time. But she is doing one live video lecture per week.

“To my surprise it has been going rather well and even having 200 students in a Zoom video meeting does not slow down the quality of the presentation. I am rather impressed. Students seem to understand the etiquette and stay on mute,” Lashley said. “Live video lectures give them a chance to ask questions using the chat feature.”

She added that many students seem more willing to ask questions via Zoom chat than she saw in in-person orgo lectures. Organic Chemistry labs present a different set of circumstances, though.

Chemistry labs always have been conducted with safety in mind. But even with pandemic-specific enhancements to the usual lab safety practices and PPE such as fume hoods and lab goggles, you can only de-densify a teaching lab so much.

“In a lab, unlike a lecture, you’re not just sitting in one location and then carefully going out, but you’re moving around,” Lashley explained.

In the first place, students work as partners in the same hood and Lashley said some lab procedures are four-handed, requiring two people. Another issue concerns how chemicals for the day’s work are dispensed. She said that there is a dispensing station where students go to measure out their reagents and other chemicals.

“That’s the equivalent of a restaurant buffet,” Lashley said. “It’s a chemistry buffet. Everybody goes to pick up things where this chemistry buffet is set up. Everyone comes into close contact.”

She said the degree of close contact can only be reduced so far, considering the existing infrastructure and number of people in the labs: “And the best way I can help somebody in the lab is by looking over their shoulder at the hood,” she added. Moreover, Lashley pointed out that some people in the labs could be at higher risk of serious illness from a COVID-19 infection.

“It was just not worth risking anybody’s health over that,” she said. “Luckily, recently, a lot of advances have been made in what’s called virtual reality laboratories.”

The chemistry department will be using a virtual experience for both organic and general chemistry. Lashley demonstrated how the software, offered by a firm called Beyond Labz, works, performing a nitration experiment on interactive software that resembles a laboratory version of the familiar SimCity video game.

Following the directions, Lashley mixes the chemicals, heats the mixture and tracks the reaction using thin layer chromatography — all in an animated lab space. She noted that the virtual lab includes a lab notebook for students to record their results in. There are a number of realistic features baked into to the virtual experience, including the possibility that something blows up: “Ooooh, I messed up!” Lashley said, the overheated beaker exploding in a cloud of animated shards.

The Department of Biology is faced with many of the same issues that their chemist colleagues must deal with. Jenny Rahn, biology laboratory coordinator, is managing 19 sections of the lab for BIOL 203, Introduction to Molecules, Cells, Development — a total of 443 students.

The enrollment is a bit higher than a typical year, she said, probably because offering this foundation course in remote-asynchronous format alleviates class-scheduling conflicts for freshmen trying to take chemistry with an associated lab. Fall 2020 will differ from the typical year in more important respects, too.

“In a typical year, the way I like to work this lab is to give students a sense for what it’s like to do science in our environment,” Rahn said. “I like to structure experiments that have some elements of independent decision making. ”

She said that each year, the lab begins with a set of introductions to basic lab practices and techniques, such as pipetting. Then she moves into an experiment chosen to give students an understanding of a method they’ll be using.

“And then the following week, we would open it up and say, ‘OK, now it’s up to you come up with your own question,’” Rahn said. “’It’s about the system that you just did an experiment on, but now it needs to be your question. So what else can you ask? Maybe you’re curious about temperature, maybe you’re curious about pH or concentration of salts or other ions.’”

In this very different fall semester, Rahn says she understands she’s “not able to put a pipettor in somebody’s hand or sit a student down in front of a microscope and show them that this is how you do it” with 443 biology students.

“It has been very challenging, because I don’t want this to be something that’s just watching a video and answering a set of questions,” she said. “What I’m doing is emphasizing the ideas of interpreting data and talking about data and drawing conclusions. Those are really important skills that I think often get kind of glossed over when you’re spending a lot of time focusing on techniques.”

She is instituting the practical aspect of a lab experience by creating a set of videos. She has a shoulder-perched video camera recording her gloved hands conducting the experiment of the day, while she narrates the process.

“The student will ask their own question,” Rahn explained. “Then they will watch the appropriate video. They will get the data from the experiment and it’s up to them to analyze it.”

Some of the videos incorporate a Choose Your Own Adventure aspect: Rahn will intentionally make a mistake in the video experiment : “Then I will ask students, ‘OK, here are the results from the experiment. Something went wrong. What went wrong?’”

Not all lab experiences will be delivered online this semester at William & Mary. For instance, Rowan Lockwood, chair of the Department of Geology, said lab sections of some geology courses will be offered in person. Home-brewed PPE, de-densification and other creative approaches will make it possible, she said.

“The way our lab space works for some of our courses like Rock-Forming Minerals or Environmental Geochemistry, we actually can spread those labs out,” Lockwood said. “So we could have them and put half in one room half in a separate room, have them socially distance, have them wear their masks and gloves.”

She said that the geologists will pull out their old, but perfectly serviceable, microscopes from storage. The professors, wearing a face shield and other appropriate PPE, will move from room to room, and mentoring their masked students.

“We feel very, very strongly that that these labs are best taught in person,” Lockwood said. “There is no replacement for the microscope work, the rock analysis, the chemistry instruments that you get to work with in the labs — there’s really no replacement for it.”

Faculty agree with Lockwood on the value that comes from taking students out in the field or placing them in the lab. Rahn says she spends a lot of time pondering how to deliver some component of the in-person lab experience to her 443 biology students.

“A lot of students have contacted me,” Rahn said. “They’re worried that they’re not going to be able to do X, Y or Z — those procedures they’ve seen me talking about on the videos.”

Rahn says that if pandemic conditions make it at all possible, she would like to have some sessions —however informal — for students to get some of the hands-on experience that lab sections were designed to provide.

“I want to put a pipettor in their hands,” Rahn said. “I want them to see what that’s like and feel what’s that like.”

Joseph McClain is the director of research communications at William & Mary.


John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

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