The transition from in-person to online classes has come with a learning curve, but for students and faculty reliant on hands-on science lectures and labs, the process is all the more complicated. For example, instead of analyzing chemical reactions, students majoring in areas such as science and engineering are expected to watch videos and participate in virtual simulations before filling out lab reports with predictions of what may or may not work in an experiment.
According to Myles Shelton, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering with an emphasis on mechanical engineering, one of the reasons why online lab simulations are frustrating is due to the lack of in-person assistance.
“Lab topics are difficult to understand without physical examples, especially when we haven’t covered the topic in class,” Shelton said. “I have had to adapt by taking more time to understand the topics on my own, which often makes the lab take longer than the allotted three hours to complete.”
Anthony Manlinguez, a pre-med student, said the switch to online classes has changed everything as it relates to labs.
“The transition to online classes has stripped labs of the purpose they served to many STEM students,” he said.
Manlinguez said in-peron labs are vital for him and other students to understand what they are learning in lectures.
“I would usually look forward to lab, as it's one of the few things within a STEM course that allows me to learn concepts through application of the material,” he said.
The difference in quality from in-person to online learning is something that concerns faculty, as well. Chemistry professor Dr. Valery Fokin said in an interview that although he was impressed with the work his students have been able to produce, no experience can quite compare to being in a lab.
Fokin said there are variables to consider during an experiment, such as temperature, smell and precise measurements. These are all things chemists should know and are hard to replicate in a video or simulation, the professor said.
“There is no replacement, no matter how we try to use modern technology,” said Fokin. “You have sight, you have to feel, you have to smell; that’s what experimental science is about.”
He said that while he is not as concerned for his upper-division classes, he worries for freshmen and newer students who would typically be performing these experiments for the first time.
Aislinn Knight, a freshman studying human biology on a pre-physical therapy track, said that her general biology course provides her with videos and pictures to watch that are paired with a worksheet. She said her class was supposed to dissect a sheep’s heart, but instead had to watch videos of the experiment.
“It has been manageable, but disappointing because we aren’t getting that hands-on experience that we would be getting in the [in-person] lab,” Knight said.
Knight said she hopes regular classes resume in the fall.
“I am concerned because I am planning on taking chemistry and anatomy in the fall and those are very lab heavy classes,” she said. “Especially for anatomy and the field I want to go into, being able to do those labs is really important to me.”
There are also some positive aspects of holding virtual labs. Dr. Jennifer Moore, the chemistry department’s director of organic labs, said simulations help students prepare for labs before the class.
“I think when we get back on campus and on our routine, we can still use simulations to give students the opportunity to explore some of the chemistry before they actually come to lab,” Dr. Moore said.
Dr. Moore explained that the university is exploring simulation labs and at-home kits. She said they will not be using kits for the summer semester as they need to test whether they are safe and if TA’s are comfortable with them.
As of now, USC has not determined if fall classes will be held online.