by Colette Achée
3/24/21, Opinion

The shift to online classes has been challenging for both students and professors at Emory, and has been particularly challenging for the science departments with regards to laboratory courses. These required courses provide their students with crucial hands-on experience necessary for a STEM career. The idea of virtual labs, thus, brings forth numerous questions: How would a virtual lab look? What will be the impact on the student’s experience and learning? Finally, what advantages and disadvantages are associated with delivering a traditionally hands-on experience through a computer screen? By communicating with professors Dr. Sarah Fankhauser and Dr. Kate McKnelly and an undergraduate student in the college, I hope to explore the pros and cons of the virtual lab experience and what it took to provide it.

Dr. Sarah Fankhauser, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Oxford College, shared how the biology faculty moved their inquiry-based labs online and her perception of the effects. She notes, “The key point for the biology faculty was finding a way to preserve the independent research projects,” which are generally an integral portion of the Biology 141 and 142 courses at Oxford College. Additionally, it was important that students still developed an “understanding [of] the process of science and how to communicate as a scientist”. To maintain focus on these aspects, the biology 141 and 142 professors collaborated with colleagues Dr. Michael Martin and Dr. Taliaferro-Smith to create procedural videos and personalized science kits for the students. She notes that this process has taught her “about the value of using technology to teach students straightforward aspects of an experiment, [which] can allow more time in the synchronous sessions to focus on other, more complex things, like data analysis and communication.” However, Dr. Fankhauser acknowledged that a “downside [of virtual labs] is that students don’t get the experience of being in an actual lab.” Being in-person for lab courses “just makes you think, “‘I’m a scientist!’” and fosters more fluid communication, collaboration, and connection between peers and professors. Despite the downsides of being virtual, Dr. Fankhauser sees significant benefit from the fact that students are learning that science can be done anywhere. 

Dr. Kate McKnelly, a lecturer in Chemistry at Emory College, was welcomed as a new faculty member in February 2020 and was tasked with designing a virtual experience for the Chemistry 204 lab course. To accommodate the virtual environment, she aimed to design a course that would instead focus on 1) improving students' understanding of how to conduct scientific research and 2) helping students understand how to present scientific findings. For her, notable benefits to the online environment have been the newfound allowance to focus on the scientific process, through formal research writing, and the ability to take advantage of in-silico techniques, such as the molecular visualization software, PyMOL. While designing this lab she kept in mind the downsides of not physically being in lab. She shares, “The big one is you are not developing lab hands,”. In other words, “you are not developing the tactical skills to manipulate glass wear or lab equipment [...] You are missing that experience”.  Virtual labs, Dr. McKnelly argues, limit a student’s ability to fully digest a technique. She elaborates that, “no matter how much you prepare [for an experiment] it doesn’t quite translate until you actually do it.” Engaging students with an experiment they are not able to perform to a degree that they would then be comfortable replicating the technique in a lab environment has been a pertinent challenge for Dr. McKnelly. One of her final comments was “A lot of it is realizing it is a grand experiment for us, like putting a lab online is an experiment in itself.” Finally, like Dr. Fankhauser, Dr. McKnelly also cites the restrictions on the ability to interact and problem solve with peers as a significant loss associated with the virtual environment.

Finally, I had the opportunity to speak with a biomedical engineering student in the college about their personal experiences with online chemistry and physics labs. In these courses, the student shared that it has been more difficult to engage and stay motivated as the social aspect of a lab has been essentially eliminated. Instead, their mindset during the lab is linked to the breakout room dynamic, which is dependent on the participation of other students, and the TA’s guidance and aid, which in some cases is minimal. Yet, despite the hindrance of collaboration and decreased guidance, the student cites that the use of simulation software in these courses has been incredibly beneficial. These simulations remove the element of human error, which would otherwise be common and threaten the timeline of the experiment; now, misunderstandings and mistakes are more easily resolved. The STEM student also communicated that the software and simulations are not limited by realistic feasibility in a classroom, they offer an ability to visualize and comprehend complex concepts.

Overall, a common theme emerges: both student and professor miss the interaction and collaboration that comes with an in-person lab course. The Emory community, students and professors alike, has come to a consensus that, while adjustments have been made to teach a thinking process rather than a physical process, these alterations cannot completely replace the hands-on experience of in-person lab courses at Emory. 

Colette Achée is a junior at the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Biology and minoring in Anthropology. Before writing for EURJ as special features writer, she worked as a writing tutor for the Biology 142 classes on the Oxford campus. She is looking forward to exploring the research done on campus and being a part of network that supports undergraduates in their research pursuits. She is a lover of dogs and in her free time enjoys a good movie or TV show and sharing meals with her friends.