As colleges and schools across the country are having to adapt to distance or hybrid learning, Missouri University of Science and Technology is turning its attention to the challenging task of making science laboratory courses virtual.

Missouri S&T professors are taking varied approaches, but all rely on the support of university IT staff.

Dr. Kelvin Erickson, distinguished professor of electrical engineering, is using Zoom and in-classroom cameras to meet with students to design automated systems for manufacturing – such as robotics, assembly, and warehouse storage and retrieval systems – for a class on programmable manufacturing automation.

The class uses ceiling-mounted cameras and large monitors on the walls. With this technology, Erickson and his teaching assistant can offer six remote lab stations.

While the class was entirely virtual for the spring semester, this fall the course will be hybrid. To observe social distancing guidelines, one student will be at each lab station, while another is online. They will trade off who is in the classroom each week. However, Erickson says he can take the lab back online completely if needed.

Chemistry professors face an additional challenge. Labs aren’t just helpful to the learning process, they are required. The American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training (CPT) requires in-person chemistry lab attendance for chemistry majors; however, in light of COVID-19, they are allowing virtual labs.

Following the use of virtual labs last semester, Dr. Klaus Woelk, associate professor of chemistry at S&T, and Dr. Philip Whitefield, chancellor’s professor and professor emeritus of chemistry, wrote a paper about their experiences with online chemistry labs to provide best practices for other educators in similar circumstances.

“To provide the best possible lab experience for students who could not physically be present, we offer live-streamed, real-time demonstrations of the scheduled lab experiments,” says Woelk. “Students are required to actively participate by naming compounds, balancing chemical equations and predicting outcomes of the experiments, as well as calculating masses, amounts, and concentrations for the chemicals used.”

S&T’s social distancing guidelines limit the number of people in a lab to three, so each virtual lab has an instructor, a teaching assistant, and a camera operator. University IT staff has installed two cameras – one fixed on the chalkboard where the instructor writes formulas, and another portable webcam that moves around the room and shows close-ups of chemical measures, mixtures, and reactions. To give students an up close view of the lab experiment, Woelk says the camera operator always has the right-of-way, so the others move back at least six feet to observe social distancing.

Built into the three-hour class schedule is time for Zoom break-out sessions with groups of four students to discuss the ongoing experiment.

The classes are streamed live – meaning there is no chance to edit the footage. Whitefield said this is unusual for online labs, but he thinks it is better for students. Missouri S&T said that edited videos can “take something complicated and make it look deceptively simple.” Since everything is live, any mistakes or spills are included. Again, Whitefield and Woelk say this is important because it allows students to learn from their mistakes and see spills that are cleaned following safety guidelines.

The professors did note a drawback of virtual labs – some students either only log in for points or don’t participate in breakout sessions. The professors are already brainstorming how they can use technology to limit a student’s ability to succeed in the course while not participating.

“In future sessions, we may require students to add screenshots of the live-streamed sessions to their post-lab reports and provide individual answers to assigned tasks during the live stream,” says Woelk. “We will not share recordings of the labs because it might be too tempting for students to skip through to the parts they need for the post-lab report.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs