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Recognizing the Struggles of Conducting Lab Online

Jan 18, 2021
The Pacifican

By: Jasmin Prasad

If you’ve ever been downing some Red Bull well into the night while listening to the sounds of your computer heaving noises, then you know what it’s like to run “Labster” on your laptop. The comical simulations coupled with the monotonous voice that seems to be coming out of a single robotic eye does not make for a pleasant experience.

Unfortunately, “Labster” isn’t the only issue throughout this semester of online lab classes: several students are struggling not only with the functionality of the programs that they are forced to work with, but also comprehending the curriculum becomes increasingly difficult without a tangible, hands-on experience.

Even the simplest of labs — carrying a titration without sodium hydroxide and acetic acid — will perhaps never be understood both in functionality and theory without hands-on work. Further, learning these concepts in an entirely new format has been made seemingly worse with what seems to be an addition of more work than before to make up for lack of in-person education?.

Students Jackie Ngo, Biology, 23’ and Mia Otani, Pre-pharmacy, 23’ are no strangers to lab work both in person and online . Ngo maintains that there seems to be a surplus of work that has been assigned, also known as “busy work,” to compensate for the lack of in-person services. Ngo says, “Previously, we didn’t have to turn in long handouts, SimBio, and watch JoVE videos… and when there are experimental videos provided by the school, the camera quality and videography is not the best.”

Internet and technical issues with laptops, computers, and software can occur at any time; Ngo gave accounts of instances where her piling work was harder to complete with Internet crashes or assignment submissions that wouldn’t load — unfortunately rendering as an incomplete.

Otani agrees with the aforementioned statements preferencing having the SimBio used as a reference for important information rather than making it a graded assignment. Collectively, both Ngo and Otani agreed that the lab kits sent out by the bio lab department were helpful and did in fact allow for a hands-on experience which is much appreciated.

Concerning chemistry lab, Ngo cites “Labster” as being a large issue for her in General Chemistry 27 lab. “The simulation assignments are not helpful and can take hours to complete even while reading the theory section… I feel they are not relevant to the current lab,” Ngo maintains. Otani, in Organic Chemistry 121, shares the same struggles with chemistry lab and even some technical issues: “The videos provided by our labs are very low quality and the media player is very glitchy causing us to spend a lot of time longer with the observations videos than was necessary.”

Both Ngo and Otani agree that too much was expected of lab students this semester, and that adding work during an already trying time has not made this transition easier. Working together with people would make this process easier but as Ngo mentions, “personalized data specific to one person and different chemical solutions makes it harder to work together as you would if you were in person… this is the time where we need others’ assistance the most in order to understand the material and what we’re doing. I can’t even ask my classmates for help because we have different assigned molecules.”

The student testimonials from Ngo and Otani reverberate for many students taking science courses online; there certainly are not two inherently unique cases.

Acknowledging Hardships and Recipes to Success According to Organic Chemistry Lab TA Tre Andang

In an interview with Organic Chemistry Lab TA Tre Andang, a graduate student who is getting his Masters in Chemistry, he says, “I believe that for the most part [my students] get the concepts of what we’re doing in the lab and why we’re doing things… the problem is that the lab should be a hands-on experience.” Andang warrants that while the lab conducted over video may seem easy, that is because the lab TAs are experienced with such work.

“A big part of the lab is making mistakes and then coming to us… that’s when the TA and the student troubleshoot and go over how they can fix whatever happened. That part is really missing… a big part of learning is messing up,” Andang says when asked what disconnects exist between the learning lab online versus in person.

In terms of lab reports, Andang noted that the reports he grades are generally of the same quality in comparison to those based on hands on work. As can be agreed by many, Andang mentions that this “proves that the concepts are understood but the real question is whether [the students] are able to perform the experiments in the laboratory setting.”

Additionally, Andang faces his own set of technological problems where he states that he thought grading online would be easier when that is not the case: “I had to relearn how to grade and how to make things more efficient for myself… even in terms of teaching, it’s a lot harder because I don’t see much of the interaction with the students.”

Andang further agrees that such technological issues can pose a threat to the learning process in his observation of students who are struggling (while he does see a couple students who are outliers and seemingly thrive in this environment).

Thankfully, Andang was able to give advice for students in lab currently; Andang being a lab TA who knows the expectations of lab knows what is needed to succeed:

“Make sure to reach out to your T.A. or your Professor: I know it’s daunting, I’ve been an undergrad before… but trust me, we want to help. Students have to take the first step in asking… if you don’t reach out it seems like you don’t care. 99% of the time, [your TA’s and professors] will be like, great let’s work on this”.

On Trying Times and Tips to Learn According to Chemistry Professor Skylar Carlson

In an interview with Professor Skylar Carlson, who teaches General and Analytical Chemistry, Carlson maintains that students have largely always struggled with the transition from lecture to lab: “Something I have always tried to do in the classes that I am in charge of is, to make sure that I have a conversation with the people running the lab. This is my course, this lab needs to be moved back a week or needs to be moved up a week”.

Carlson recognizes that the very hands-on lab experiences — like learning how to use a buret — simply isn’t feasible online, so she has chosen to focus more on data interpretation: the stuff behind the scenes. She is also aware of “Labster” not being the most ideal software as she mentions that “it is not the most technologically advanced platform… we would all rather be in the laboratory for four hours than go through another “Labster” simulation, but that is our best attempt.”

Carlson also brings up an important fact; professors, like students, question how to move forward in the lab. “We all as faculty kind of sat down and were like, what are the essential skills that we are trying to get students to take with them at the end of the course?”

Like the students who are plagued with a myriad of technological issues, Carlson explains that she is no foreigner to these unfortunate events. She has experienced many instances of what she calls, “Canvas stabbing her in the back,” by uploading grades when she wasn’t ready or not readily (or easily) letting her update questions. There was even an instance when Zoom wouldn’t work on her iPad merely because the iPad needed to be updated. Another day, she had a “brown-out,” where her power had randomly crashed.

“When students email me and say that their power went out or ask if it’s okay that they’re using their hotspot so they can’t have their camera on, I say yes please… call in if you would rather and you can catch the recording another time,” Carlson says.

Carlson too has a series of tips for students who are struggling with learning lecture and lab concepts at home:

“1. The internet is wide open. Feel free to use online resources like Khan Academy, but then go back and look at your instructors notes and recognize how your instructor wants you to solve them with a new set of eyes… understand them in context.

2. Get outside of your screens: you don’t have to go outside or do anything artsy… read a book or go out for a walk. You have to be very selective about what you let into your mind.

3. Take care of yourself as a person before you move on with your studies; take time to reflect on what happened in the week”.