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Remote lab classes present unique solutions alongside common drawbacks

(Nghi Nguyen/Daily Bruin)

By Shruti Iyer

Sept. 22, 2020 12:48 p.m.

Lab course instructors have had to find ways to adapt to a mostly remote learning environment without hurting students’ education.

UCLA announced in August that the university would adopt a mostly remote approach to fall quarter to meet guidelines from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. As a result, most lab courses were moved to remote instruction.

Arlene Russell, a senior lecturer who studies teaching in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, said she and her colleagues learned which aspects of the lab courses worked well and which didn’t in an online format while teaching spring quarter lab courses.

Russell, who teaches undergraduate chemistry labs, said she found that the online format didn’t help with hands-on lab skills like handling glassware. So instead, she focused on soft skills like data analysis, Russell said.

Erik Kramer, a mechanical engineering graduate student and a teaching assistant for Physics 4BL: “Physics Laboratory for Scientists and Engineers: Electricity and Magnetism,” said the ingenuity of his TA team helped ease the transition to an online platform.

For example, students in the lab usually use an oscilloscope, a device that measures voltage of electric signal, to collect data, he said. However, another TA was able to substitute the equipment with a custom code and hardware from their kits to perform similar functions.

Javier Carmona, an electrical engineering graduate student and the TA who developed the substitute code, said it was a roundabout way for students to capture physical phenomena on their own, and it showed students that not having the necessary equipment doesn’t mean they cannot conduct the experiment they are interested in.

“It was mainly just trying to explain to the students that, regardless of the situation, you can take hardware that is not meant to do something, and you can repurpose it to do something else,” Carmona said.

The hardware and software already used in the course also helped ease the transition, Kramer said.

Previously, students had to buy their own lab kits and use Python to code, which Kramer said didn’t change since students could still use their own kits in their homes and code in Python for free.

Kramer added that they are constantly updating the curriculum based on student feedback and TAs’ observations – recently shifting to focus more on a final project based on a student’s personal interests.

This change, Kramer said, came because students were more invested in and excited to build projects on their own, which allowed them to produce impressive work, like balancing robots or a lock that unlocks when someone whistles the correct tune.

“Those are sort of the things that make students the most excited,” Kramer said. “Obviously, student excitement leads to better student learning.”

Engineering lab classes, such as Electrical and Computer Engineering 3: “Introduction to Electrical Engineering,” ask students to program robot cars to follow a path, said Mike Briggs, a continuing lecturer in the electrical and computer engineering department.

Briggs said the department shipped out between 120 and 140 robot cars, which are used in ECE 3, to students’ homes to make sure all students could work with the same materials. Students are expected to ship the cars back to UCLA at the end of the quarter, he added.

Russell said she considered shipping equipment but thought some students might not have a safe space to conduct experiments. Russell added that she didn’t want to introduce inequalities by asking students to buy their own equipment since some students may not be able to afford it.

Instead, she decided to use simulations to help students produce their own data, instead of having to make it up. She said it has been a success so far since students come close to performing experiments on their own without worrying over inequalities.

Briggs said that while in a physical lab, it is difficult to help students personally without invading a students’ personal space. Zoom allows him to have one-on-one discussions with students without invading students’ space.

“We noticed that it’s hard to do that in the lab,” Briggs said. “I mean you’re leaning right over because you got to get close to the screen to be able to see the code. You’re invading the person’s space.”

Briggs added he would like to continue using Zoom, even when classes go back to normal.

“Once we get back to in-person classes, everybody back on campus and all that, I’m going to continue using Zoom for exactly that use, for that purpose,” Briggs said. “It is really an advantage.”

Russell said one of her students told her that they were able to use knowledge she learned in Russell’s course to correctly use lab equipment, despite not having any hands-on experience.

This reassured Russell, she said, because it meant the theoretical approach still made it easy to pick up physical skills when students return to the lab.

Still, Russell said she missed seeing her students in the lab.

“The reason we teach is we really like students,” Russell said. “Even meeting them remotely is not the same as walking up to them in the lab and saying, ‘Show me what you’re doing.’ … That real time interaction is hard without being there.”

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Shruti Iyer | Assistant News editor
Iyer is the current Science and Health editor and a reporter for News. She is also an Illustrator and Graphics contributor. She was previously a contributor for the Science and Health beat. She is a third year astrophysics student at UCLA who enjoys writing Physics and Astronomy research articles and drawing accompanying artwork.
Iyer is the current Science and Health editor and a reporter for News. She is also an Illustrator and Graphics contributor. She was previously a contributor for the Science and Health beat. She is a third year astrophysics student at UCLA who enjoys writing Physics and Astronomy research articles and drawing accompanying artwork.
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