In light of concerns due to COVID-19, the University of Dallas science department is taking a new approach to labs this semester.
In Spring 2020, as the coronavirus hopscotched around the world, classroom lectures transitioned to virtual platforms and laboratory classes were converted to simulation labs. However, these virtual labs often failed to meet objectives for laboratory classes that primarily train student scientists to work with equipment and glassware. Thus, the UD science department decided to have all Fall 2020 labs as in-person or hybrid classes, when at all possible.
Dr. Deanna Soper, associate professor of biology, vividly remembers sitting on the beach in the Florida Keys with her research students when she was first notified about campus lockdown in March.
“We were two days into our marine field ecology class,” notes Soper. This was only the tip of the iceberg; in the following months the coronavirus “fundamentally changed almost every aspect of teaching and research for me,” Soper said.
Soper noted that “not understanding all the disease dynamics that we now understand” about the coronavirus, made it very difficult to conduct any in-person instruction over the summer. This meant that lab research had to undergo significant modification.
The lab was supposed to continue a coral gene expression project but “you cannot perform an RNA extraction from coral virtually,” stated Soper.
This switch to virtual research meant that seniors Maria Zambrana and Carolann Stone were able to work on marine field research while in the comfort of their homes in Washington, D.C. and Minnesota while collaborating with NOVAA in Mississippi and SeaVision in Connecticut. What once seemed like a bleak summer turned out to be a fulfilling experience for Soper’s research students.
Soper’s in-person labs this semester underwent significant changes as syllabuses were modified to provide the most flexibility.
While Soper does include some virtual labs in her evolutionary class under normal circumstances, she noted that the number has increased this year, especially in the latter half of the semester, to avoid any issues if school was to go online.
Additionally, Soper’s Darwin lab usually gets a chance to visit the Perot Museum as part of their coursework. However, after the museum closed due to coronavirus concerns, Soper decided on Dinosaur State Valley Park as an alternative given its outdoor setting. While it required significant prep work with early visits and fossil location, it allowed students to have an out-of-classroom experience amidst significant restrictions.
Soper said that it is all about adapting to obstacles. Soper reminisced about the human genetics lab work where students were required to taste PTC paper as part of the lab procedure. “How does one get students to taste paper with masks on? I used aseptic technique, with sterile gloves and forceps to transfer the paper to the students who then went outside to perform the tasting test,” Soper said.
On the floor above Soper’s research lab, Associate Professor of chemistry Dr. Jonathan Dannatt formulated a contingency plan for his organic labs, but concluded that the in-person experience is vital for a lab.
“If Lebron James told you how to hold a ball and throw a three, that is very different from you actually shooting a three in court,” said Dannatt.
Rather than focusing on the tangible goals of the lab, Dannatt focused the class on soft skills, specifically written and oral communication; according to a journal article that Danatt co-authored, design and execution of experiments is an important part of being a chemist. He employed an interesting twist in the lab which helped students get their first taste of what it means to be a chemist.
“Essentially, the lab was now a research journal,” explained Dannatt. “I was the Editor in Chief and students chose labs from earlier on in the semester on which they wrote a full research paper. These papers were then submitted anonymously to their own peers who reviewed and commented on them, essentially mirroring the submission for a peer-reviewed journal.”
The students were further instructed to build their own rubric for a scientific paper which they then used to grade their own papers and those of their peers as part of the class. While labs for fall 2020 are in-person, this approach to the lab remains a back-up plan for his organic class if classes were to go online. This work was published in the Journal of Chemical Education co-authored by Dannatt and Dr. Aaron Baker at Huntington College.
Currently, organic lab sections at UD function in two groups, A and B. The students take turns in performing in-person labs. Breaking the class into sections allows a single student to work in a chemical hood. The students who are not working in-person a particular week are required to conduct research on chemistry techniques which they then present to the rest of the class in virtual format. The groups alternate tasks through the course of the semester.