Teaching labs online this fall has been quite unique. I am one of many instructors who has struggled with how best to instruct my students, particularly because labs require hands-on learning that can be difficult to simulate through a screen. However, my colleagues and I were inspired from our rapid transition to online classes this past spring. At the time, we had reviewed material that was available on YouTube and created thoughtful questions for students’ weekly assignments. Though we knew that this course plan would not be feasible to use in future semesters, it had served as a quick and temporary fix back then.

Switching gears to the current semester, we decided to do a combination of dry and wet online laboratory assignments. Our semester runs for a series of 15 weeks, and a total of four sections are co-taught by two organic chemistry professors. My colleague and I decided that I would cover the first six weeks on an online platform called Collaborate, which is analogous to Zoom or Google Meet, while he would cover the remaining nine weeks by conducting the wet laboratory experiments in a hybrid format.

The decision to follow a multi-format course was based on our preferences for an online alternative during the pandemic. Using the Karty book and its mechanistic organization as a guide, I dedicated the first five weeks to cover IR spectroscopy, 13C NMR spectroscopy, lab safety, and hazardous waste. The book’s chapter-specific PowerPoints, in particular, served as wonderful references for these spectroscopy concepts. Students’ online assignments included three worksheets, which my colleague and I created to cover IR and 13C NMR spectroscopy topics. These materials were meant to prepare our students as they transitioned to the wet labs in the next couple weeks. Students completed all these assignments in pairs, with chosen or assigned partners, following the mandates set by the university (e.g. meeting over Zoom or other electronic platforms) to conduct coursework. I found that this helped keep the workload down to a reasonable level and allowed for smooth grading on my part. 

These first six weeks culminated in a combined spectroscopy midterm, which took the form of a presentation. Student pairs were assigned 15-minute sessions to present their work live on our Collaborate platform to me and any other students who were able and willing to attend their peers’ midterms. During these presentations, I asked students about their assigned unknowns and how they utilized spectroscopy to deduce their answers. Often, I asked them questions throughout their presentations to help them see the bigger picture and apply their work to various functional groups and other related topics.

After this point, my colleague became the primary contact for the lab, taking the lead for the remaining nine weeks in the semester. The course was now offered in two formats, allowing students to choose their preferred modes of instruction. They could attend the lab in person for F2F instruction, or they could watch lab videos from the safety of their homes. Regardless of the course format, however, students were still expected to prepare pre-labs, keep a lab notebook, and submit complete lab reports, but this time, alone, without the help of partners.

For those students participating from home, the online lab videos were prepared and recorded by our three TAs during the first six weeks of the semester, when I was teaching remotely. The TAs finished all nine experiments by Week 7 so they could post the videos in time for each regularly scheduled lab period to view later. This helped ensure that all students, regardless of whether they were using the online videos or performing the labs in person, had the same amount of time to write the lab reports.

As we near the end of this semester and begin to look ahead to the next, my colleague and I plan to conduct our future online lab courses within a framework similar to the one outlined above. What’s worked well is that keeping the dry and wet experiments separate has helped our students recognize when they would need to be physically present in the lab. This has also helped our TAs because they will complete the same tasks from this semester—creating and compiling online videos for all the wet labs—again at the start of next semester.

Moving forward, though, one potential concern that we share is that students who choose online labs over in-person labs in future semesters may not fully learn the skills that are essential for upper-level labs. This isn’t to say that we would blame them for their personal choices—after all, their safety is our number-one priority. But it is important for us to realize that when we remove a crucial dimension of learning, even if due to circumstances outside our control, we need to be prepared to face the potential drawbacks and consequences.

In our attempts to compensate for the loss of hands-on learning, we’ve seen that our dry labs have helped students better grasp the theory behind the techniques, which is a definite bonus. So even though the most valuable features of in-person learning and teaching have been sorely missed due to online classes, it’s nonetheless reassuring for us to see that we are all doing our very best to make up for as many of these losses as we can on our path back to normalcy.

-Kerri Taylor, Columbus State University

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