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Students learn to adapt to wins and woes of online laboratory classes

Following UCLA’s decisions to move instruction online, lab class students, lecturers and professors are now dealing with the impacts of having to do labs remotely. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Inga Hwang

April 20, 2020 5:46 p.m.

Christina Gallup was excited to learn common biological lab techniques during her introductory bioengineering lab course because her past lab courses had taught chemistry lab skills.

However, Gallup, a third-year bioengineering student, dropped Bioengineering 167L: “Bioengineering Laboratory” and will take it in fall instead because she believed the new online format prevented her from getting the hands-on experience she needed to fully master the techniques.

“Watching the TAs perform the experiments is not really the same thing as actually doing them,” Gallup said. “I went to the first lecture to understand what was happening in the class, and I just felt it wasn’t going to be as beneficial as it could be.”

UCLA moved spring quarter instruction completely online on March 13 to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, challenging professors to restructure their spring quarter laboratory classes to compensate for the lack of in-person lab sessions.

Timothy Fisher, the chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department, planned to implement microcontrollers, or small compact circuits, into his laboratory course before classes were held online but had not put his idea into practice yet.

However, the transition to remote learning made this change necessary because students can use microcontrollers at home, unlike the measurement devices usually used in his course, he said.

Fisher, also reduced the number of labs in his class and added a microcontroller-based independent project. Teaching assistants for his class now generate mock lab data based on previous years and students perform analysis in Zoom breakout rooms during lab sessions.

The videos students watch during the required lectures that depict the experiments cannot replace the in-person lab experience, Fisher added.

“Obviously we’re never going to replace the on-campus experience because touching and seeing something in three-dimension is fundamentally different than watching someone else do it on a computer screen,” Fisher said.

Amanda Freise, a lecturer in the microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics department, teaches a two quarter long laboratory class about viruses that infect bacteria, with the first half starting in spring quarter.

Freise moved fall quarter’s content, where students analyze genomes, to spring, since students can access the necessary bioinformatics tools from their computers at home. She also adjusted the labs so students could complete them individually instead of in the usual teams of four.

Freise said she did not realize how much she relied on in-person teaching to deliver important information to students.

“We have slides and readings, … but there were so many little sticking points or things that would need troubleshooting in class,” Freise said. “I’m not working with everybody in person or at the same time, (so) I have to really think about what the problems could be and then incorporate them into the materials.”

Freise said the majority of her students watch the lectures live but have their audio and video off. Students are also hesitant to participate when she asks for questions or in-class discussion, she added.

“I worry that the format of the course … may prevent (students) from feeling excited about the work,” Freise said. “If I had to guess, I think that they are not enjoying the remote learning as much as they would doing this work in a classroom.”

However, online learning allowed Fisher to increase the breadth and complexity of error analysis taught in the course because he can work directly with students during the scheduled lab sessions, he added.

“I don’t love Zoom but being able to … just kind of pop around from breakout room to breakout room really helps,” Fisher said. “We’re able to engage with (students) in a different and … less distracted way.”

Some students embraced the move to online learning, while others sat it out.

Aly Ung, a third-year bioengineering student, said she thinks how much students enjoy their lab courses depends on what they hoped to get out of them in the first place. Ung is currently enrolled in Bioengineering 167L.

Teaching assistants talk through laboratory procedures during lab sections and students complete post-lab assignments using provided data, Ung said. She added students are also required to analyze research articles related to the assignments.

Ung said she still enjoys the course because the research lab she works in already familiarized her with many of the protocols taught in Bioengineering 167L, allowing her to focus on gaining a deeper understanding of the techniques.

“What I’m learning now is basically hyperfocusing on what I want to learn, which is the motivations behind the experimental design,” Ung said.

Kenji Miura, a second-year chemistry and material science student, said he prefers the online version of his chemistry lab because he can focus on the science without having to perform the labs.

“I actually hate chem lab with a burning passion, so the fact that it’s not in-person is great,” Miura said. “(The labs) are just very stressful.”

Miura said he also enjoys the online lab lectures’ more flexible time constraints because his professor can spend more time on the material.

He added he chose to stay in his two lab courses because dropping them would force him to graduate late.

Tejas Patel, a second-year biochemistry student, said he enjoys the flexibility of his online lab but misses the troubleshooting aspect of performing labs in person. His lab course requires students to complete virtual labs through the online application Labster.

“Because (the experiments) are in the virtual lab, I don’t think you have the opportunity to like mess up and learn where you messed up,” Patel said. “If you realize you messed up it’s a learning experience, and I think that’s very valuable for students.”

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