Lab classes give students new experiences with experimenting

The science and Health Building overlooks the bikepath/pedway on north campus, Sep. 1, 2015.

NAU has had to observe and adapt as students and professors continue the school year in remote and socially distanced settings. Many lab programs in the fall 2020 semester went through their own metamorphosis, shifting to accommodate students. 

According to NAU’s website, NAUFlex will be implemented Jan. 11-22, meaning online learning will play a heavy hand in education this semester. Depending on the class, students will continue in person or online because procedures vary between programs and professors. 

David John is the instructional laboratory director for NAU’s microbiology lab and is in charge of everything from the curriculum and instruction to the facilities and equipment. The labs that John oversees are in person, so a lot of thought was put into how to structure the space to allow maintaining physical distance in the lab and other procedures for minimizing contact. John said the physical space of their lab provides a lot of benefits, such as pods, which are workspaces set up to be six feet across from the next. 

John also said the classes are divided into two groups with  students spending half of their class time in the lab, then rotating out. All the procedural and background information is provided through videos before the lab. 

Other procedures are also set for the students to be safe in the lab. This includes requiring a mask, each student getting their own safety glasses and having to wipe their microscopes and work space down with alcohol, John said. He said because students get information as well as possible before class, they could focus on doing the exercises and hands-on work. 

“Basically, I just didn’t think that [online labs] would be rewarding and fulfilling enough for the students, and they just wouldn’t get the same experience in any way compared to if they’re doing it in person,” John said. “I wanted, if at all possible, to have it remain as an in-person class, since it is just 100% hands-on from day one.”

John said looking at the total 550 students enrolled, few expressed concern about coming in person and the students were really engaged with the labs in the fall. He said the program has seen a drop-off of about 5% from last year, the advisers have been accommodating and the program has been flexible. 

 “Everybody did as well as they could,” John said. “It’s not ideal but it was the best we could do, and I think a lot of the students appreciated that. It’s always a debate that I have in my mind — is it the right thing to do — but based on the way things have gone, what I’ve seen and just the experience, I still think it is.”

Even for those who do not have a science-related major, everyone has to take a lab at one point in their college career at NAU. Sophomore Abigail Brown took a geology class in the fall 2020 semester that she chose to take fully remote.

Brown said the in-person class had about eight or nine people. Each class was about 20 minutes of lecturing and students could choose to go or stay for the rest of the time to do the lab and have questions answered, she said.

The online labs were challenging and she said she would have to go to her professor’s office hours a lot because it was hard to get questions answered on Zoom while the professor was in the classroom. She said if she had been in the classroom, she could have had questions answered there. Attending office hours can be an obstacle because instructors only have them twice a week, so sometimes she would have to cancel other activities in order to attend, she said. 

It was difficult to learn in the labs when students were not learning what they were supposed to in the class, Brown said. She said with the accompanying class there were 300 students and only one tutor for the geology department. To get a hold of the tutor, she said she had to schedule an appointment two weeks out and was put on a waiting list.

Brown said she spoke to her professor during class and was met with multiple students thanking her for saying something. She also reached out to a director in the geology department, and after speaking together on the phone, she did not hear back again. Brown explained that she served on ASNAU as a senator and brought up the issues she was seeing in her class with NAU President Rita Cheng but nothing changed.

“Nothing was taken seriously, but as a student, that’s really discouraging,” Brown said. “I’m someone that has a 4.0 not because I’m just naturally smart, but because I’m willing to put in the work. If I don’t understand something, I’m going to go to two hours of tutoring. When that’s not available, I mean, what do you do?”

Brown said she thought the way the lab was handled was great, but even her lab instructor agreed that the class should not have been so hard. She said the way the class was handled overall seemed unprofessional, and as a student who is willing to work hard, it felt as if NAU did not step up. 

Although adjustments have been difficult and took lots of careful planning and work, classes like the one Mar-Elise Hill teaches have been virtual before the pandemic started. Hill is an associate clinical professor in the biology department at NAU, and her classes have catered to remote students for the past four years.

Some of her labs are taught using just a virtual platform, but she has other labs she calls kitchen labs. In those labs, students complete experiments in their dorm room or kitchens on their own, Hill said. To do a simple proof of concept lab, Hill said students acquire different materials and report their experiment and results through photos. 

“Pre- and post-COVID, it feels like students are more willing to understand different platforms as simple as Blackboard Learn and other online platforms,” Hill said. “Online got destigmatized by students and fellow faculty with COVID. So, for me, it’s kind of been a positive thing.”

Hill explained that the pressure for learning is put back on the student, so the student has to be engaged with the material and be present with their work. Hill said the benefit to teaching asynchronous courses is that students can do work when they have time within the given time frame.

It can be hard for students to feel like they have the confidence to do these experiments, though. Hill said that some get overwhelmed having to do it by themselves. She said she really believes each student can do the lab if they slow down and work to understand. 

“I think the biology department has really done the best that they can do given the circumstances, and they’ve tried to deliver the most hands-on, collaborative experience they can while also managing the risks of spreading COVID,” Hill said. “I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”

With different professors and departments determining the rules and layout for each lab class, every student is bound to have a different experience. Although there is a big difference between going to a lab, answering questions on a computer or doing an experiment in one’s kitchen, professors and students have worked to make it all run smoothly.