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When teaching assistant Leslie Scheurer ran the quantum dots lab during the week before spring break, she produced a series of accompanying pictures to help the students understand the experiment. Photo courtesy of Dr. Marie van Staveren.

Taking the lab work out of the lab: How the chemistry department is adjusting to online learning

When the University of Maryland, Baltimore County announced that courses would be moving online for the remainder of the semester, students and faculty in the sciences found themselves facing a particularly formidable challenge. How were they going to transfer their lab courses online? In most cases, there was no way for students to do the experiments, which often require expensive instruments and equipment, at home.

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is one of several departments at UMBC that feature lab courses as a prominent part of the curriculum. Anticipating that the coronavirus would upend the semester, the department’s chair, Dr. Zeev Rosenzweig, actually began preparing for the possibility of distance learning at the end of February, a few weeks before any official announcements came from the university.

Part of this preparation involved filming labs. Rosenzweig estimates that most chemistry lab courses involve between ten and fourteen lab assignments, half of which the students had completed by spring break. The plan was to have the chemistry teaching assistants film themselves conducting the experiments, explaining what they were doing and pointing out trouble spots the students might run into. Then, they would send the data they gathered to the class.

“Every experiment in the lab has two majors parts for it; one is to get the data and one is to analyze the data to derive conclusions,” Rosenzweig explains. This method allows students to witness the process of gathering the data and to continue to analyze it as they would if they were in class.

Rosenzweig’s plan came to an unexpected halt when the university decided to close the physical campus during spring break, however; he had wanted the teaching assistants to record videos during the break when they were not busy with schoolwork. In the end, he says, they were only able to record around 35 percent of the videos they had planned. He and the department’s faculty were able to find some videos of experiments similar to the ones used in UMBC’s chemistry classes online, using resources from other schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

He notes that interactive simulations, in which students would be able to conduct the experiment in a virtual space, do exist in some fields, like medicine. But the software for digital chemistry labs does not exist in a usable form yet. “Maybe because of this crisis, we’ll see more rapid development such that these simulations will be more available,” he says.

In the end, between the recordings made by the teaching assistants and the resources found online, Rosenzweig estimates that there are video simulations of 85 percent of the experiments used in the departments’ classes. “There are some experiments that we cannot find appropriate simulations [of],” he explains. “[But] it’s something that we can live with for this semester.”

Dr. Marie van Staveren teaches an upper-level chemistry lab course for juniors and seniors, which, prior to moving online, would meet in the lab for a total of eight hours each week. Like many of her colleagues, van Staveren prepared to begin distance learning by having her teaching assistants spend the week before spring break running experiments and collecting data that the students could analyze at home. Additionally, she has adjusted her course to place a heavier emphasis on computational chemistry.

Computational chemistry involves taking what is already known about the properties of chemicals and using that information to predict the outcome of an experiment. “In previous versions of this class, it was a very small part of the course, but I amplified it because it’s something we can do remotely,” she says, explaining that this will teach the students “how the program works and what kind of math is the right kind of math” to use in different situations.

Still, some elements of van Staveren’s class have been scrapped entirely. She usually assigns a project, for example, in which students dig through the various pieces of equipment that are stored in the lab — many of which are old or broken — and try to build a brand new instrument out of the available parts. 

“They learn a lot from picking up a piece of equipment and saying, what does this thing do?” she says. “I can’t come up with a way to meaningfully make that remote.”

van Staveren is well aware that many students will not be coming out of this semester with all the knowledge that they need to succeed in future lab classes, regardless of the quality of the online education they receive. The hands-on experience is vital, she believes: “Imagine you are going to a restaurant and the chef learned how to cook on the internet and they’ve never cooked before. They’re probably not going to cook very well. Even if they learned theory and watched a lot of videos.”

Still, the fact that this applies to all students currently enrolled in a lab course makes things a little easier. Over the next few years, when van Staveren looks at a student’s transcript and sees that they were enrolled in general chemistry in spring 2020, she will know to expect some gaps in their knowledge. And she will be ready to work through them.