For Eckerd’s science students, some of the most memorable experiences in their undergraduate careers include seine netting off of Indian Key, watching a clear solution turn bright pink before their eyes in the James Center or collecting plants around Galbraith to then press, label and present for a herbarium in botany class. Since March 30, when classes began virtually, these experiences are now impossible for this semester.
Each lab course is structured differently, so each approach to virtual labs is unique. While some professors videotaped themselves performing the labs, others rely on one of Eckerd library’s resources, Eckerd Library’s Journal of Visual Experience, while others are having students analyze given data using Excel.
Junior Lantana Edie, a marine science major, has three lab courses for this spring semester, Marine and Freshwater Botany, General Chemistry and Principles of Ecology. Each course is doing something slightly different for a virtual lab.
“I think a lot of people thought switching to online classes would be easier, but in reality it's so much harder,” Edie said. “And I think professors are doing their best to do everything that they can for us. But I think the one thing that they're not realizing is that this is new to them. But this is also new to all of us.”
In Principles of Ecology, a 300-level marine science and biology course, Associate Professor of Marine Science and Biology Nancy Smith needed to completely rethink the rest of the semester.
Normally, after spring break, the ecology students would have had to develop their own research projects. This involves designing an experiment on Eckerd’s campus, collecting the data and analyzing the data in small groups with the aid of the professor. Now, this is not feasible with students spread all throughout the country and stay at home orders.
“I know every student that has taken ecology will tell you that one of the best experiences that they get from the class is to be able to do their own research in my class,” Smith said. “To spend five weeks working on their own project that they design that they create and they get to do. And because in not a lot of other courses that students take, you get that opportunity. So it's a very unique one.”
Instead, Smith has designed other activities for students to manipulate and analyze real ecology data from her own research and research done by colleagues in the field.
“Part of ecology is learning about the methods used to collect the data,” Smith said. “The technique is important, but since we can't do that, we do the next best thing, which is basically I describe the techniques. And then I provide the data. So I've had to create some new labs to do this.”
For General Chemistry, Associate Professor of Chemistry Polina Maciejczyk claimed that they were relatively lucky. Students have been developing laboratory skills in chemistry throughout the entire year, and the last few labs of the semester were mostly numerical analysis of data.
Edie still notices a difference.
“I know it's kind of the best we can do because obviously we don't want to be shipping chemicals and have someone blow up their kitchen,” Edie said. “But it's definitely different because it's not as hands-on.”
Maciejczyk did recognize that students may miss the in-person visualizations that come with lab experiences that aid students when learning chemistry.
“The value of the laboratory experience really cannot be overstated,” Maciejczyk said. “The lab does translate this imaginative real world to really tangible stuff.”
But, she explained that students will still be able to process data, which is an important skill for later in science careers.
“You don't really need to cut the puzzle out of the cardboard yourself,” Maciejczyk said. “You say, ‘But I was really looking forward to having some scissors in my hand to cut my own puzzle.’ You know, you didn't get to cut your own puzzle, but you still get to assemble it together and see what it means.”
Maciejczyk and the other chemistry professors that teach this course combined the last four labs into two, with videos for students to watch and Google Meet lab meetings for explanations.
“Think of it more like a cooking video,” Edie said.
Marine and Freshwater Botany, a 288-level marine science course, has other challenges. Assistant Professor of Marine Science and Biology Jeannine Lessmann has had to alter the lab design a lot. For the week of March 29, she had students watch videos and take notes to have an in-lab discussion via Google Meet.
One of the biggest challenges is that the botany course requires a herbarium, a collection of plants that are pressed, glued onto special paper and labeled to help students identify local marine and freshwater plant species.
After careful thought, Lessmann has offered students three options: to continue the original assignment and send pictures, a digital herbarium with pictures of live plants or a research paper about a given topic.
Edie is lucky that she lives in the St. Petersburg area, so she will still have a herbarium to complete.
“She [Lessmann] is letting me check out a plant press from her,” Edie said.
With lab field trips canceled and limited ways to teach lab through a camera, professors are coming up with unique ways to make sure that their students are still learning through the lab in order to receive course credit.