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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Magic of Teaching Science Labs Isn't Lost Online

To help flatten the curve of Covid-19 cases, universities across the nation have closed, and many professors are scrambling to transition to teaching online. This sudden shift is easier for some, especially those that already have online content readily available. For others, especially those who teach science labs, this may seem impossible.

Both of us have experience teaching lab courses in person, which often already involve an online interface for sharing syllabi, files, grades, and to foster student discussion. We’ve also taught courses exclusively online, including typical lecture-based courses and a massive open online course (reaching hundreds of thousands of students worldwide). Indeed, there are many models for online teaching for lab instructors to learn from. But can lab objectives be cajoled into existing online learning platforms used by universities, like Blackboard and Moodle?

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Science labs have traditionally served as spaces where experimental inspiration and future scientists develop. Aside from muscle memory, this firsthand experience also gives students the chance to see before they believe, to witness the color change your professor assured you would happen, to be the hand that mixed those chemicals in the appropriate order. Witnessing in three dimensions the growth of bacteria or the whirring of a balanced tabletop centrifuge will be very difficult to recreate over a screen.

We still remember our formative lab experiences. Esther grew up in rural Kenya, without access to science labs or electricity, which denied her the chance to experience the magic of sciences. When she was in college, she didn’t want to leave the lab, enthralled by every step of her biochemistry experiments. Brian remembers when the chore of waking up for an early morning lab seamlessly became a pleasure.

Our current rushed exercise in public health precaution will test whether online labs could be the future of instruction for universities. The learning curve for this transition and the unforgiving timeframe imposed by Covid-19 sets the bar unreasonably high. Professors have their own anxieties and responsibilities during this crisis that may prevent them from doing their best. Students and professors must remember to have empathy for one another when setting expectations during this viral turmoil. Still, this is a moment to reflect on the nature of lab courses and which experiences can be achieved online.

Over the past few years, we’ve already seen a swell of scientific experiments shared online, from YouTube to online science journals such as JoVE, which publishes videos of scientific experiments from laboratories around the world. Replacing labs with videos may rob students of another important experience from labs: The serendipity of science. Much of science is failure. This is perhaps no truer than when budding scientists are chaperoned through a preplanned experiment in a lab course. The best teaching assistants anticipate all of the nearly infinite things that can go wrong during each exercise. But even the most seasoned TAs will be surprised by the creativity of their students, not in getting the exercise wrong, but providing an opportunity for them and their classmates to learn from their mistakes. Esther still remembers accidentally making teargas in a chemistry lab over 23 years ago. This melding of our humanity and the serendipity of science will be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate through a screen.

Transitioning science labs online may also disadvantage many more, including the minorities, and other students with unique disabilities including living in areas that may not have access to computers and the bandwidth needed to stream the science videos.

Still, transitioning science labs online could lead to several positive outcomes. For one, it would remove the burden of tedious and repetitive tasks that don’t not require much thought or effort but take up a lot of time, like preparing supplies for a lab full of students each week. It will cut down on the budget needed to do the research, and free up funds that can be used to spur more creativity. Some classes may be able to invest more in technologies such as 3D modeling software, which is bridging learning gaps that videos simply can’t span. Similar technological possibilities are emerging in medical teaching, such as interactive, digital anatomy interfaces like Anatomage, that mitigate the need to obtain, store, and dispose of human cadavers.

Online labs may pave room for more flexibility, which may ensure that many more have the opportunity to do science. Then there is the issue of diversity. Transitioning science labs online gives us a unique opportunity to incorporate animated characters that are gender neutral or color neutral –further allowing us to inspire many more into science. It could also spur an era of cloud-based science labs that will allow students and researchers alike to remotely design and perform experiments via a web interface or connected lab equipment.

As campuses continue this transition, the learning process will be decentralized. On the internet, what is stopping instructors across multiple universities from developing a shared curriculum, leveraging each instructor’s strengths, to teach diverse students all over the world? This effort may collectively raise the quality and thus standards of collaborating universities. In the middle of the semester, when Covid-19 began closing universities, it made sense to tailor an online transition to each course individually. But universities would benefit logistically by offering courses online in collaboration. Academics could leverage their network of colleagues, who often teach similar courses, to facilitate such multi-university online courses. These efforts could be supported by high-quality, multilingual video repositories like Science Animations Without Borders, which is freely-available for educational purposes.

In the end, new models will emerge. If we can learn to teach science online, by overcoming or accepting necessary compromises, then we may bring the magic of science to many more students from rural areas, years before they’re able to set foot in a lab.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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