Science Classes Use Different Forms of Virtual Laboratory Software

By: Mili Chizhik and Shoshanah Marcus  |  November 25, 2020

By Mili Chizhik and Shoshanah Marcus, News Editors

With the Fall 2020 semester beginning with an online format, science departments are faced with the challenge to convert their tried and true laboratory procedures to fit an online format.

Some courses, such as the organic chemistry laboratory at Stern College, have opted to convert their entire course to an online format. Professor Estes and Professor Deng, the organic chemistry laboratory instructors, have opted to use the program ChemLabZ to conduct all experiments needed for the course. The software comes with worksheets, which has replaced many of the lab reports that had been required in previous years. Though each lab is performed by the students individually using the ChemLabZ software, each professor provides required textbook reading, a supplemental video, and a lecture during the scheduled laboratory slot.

Laboratories such as the cell biology lab have opted to use multiple formats to optimize distance learning, and the instructors have even offered students the option to come into the lab after break. The cell biology lab has used Labster, a virtual lab experience, and Edvotek, a company that sends various materials to students’ houses so that they can perform experiments at home in a safe and controlled manner. Each lab is accompanied by a corresponding lecture slideshow and a homework assignment.

While some courses require completion of the labs on virtual simulation programs, students enrolled in either the introductory or general physics courses must attend the same synchronous lectures, and theoretical experiments are performed with pre-existing data. During a typical week, the first twenty minutes of lecture are dedicated for the weekly quiz. After the quiz, Dr. Edelman explains the theory behind the experimental topic and then the students are divided into groups to work on evaluating and analyzing the data given.

Some laboratory instructors, such as Dr. Schuck in the microbiology lab, have given students the option to work in the lab in person. Dr. Schuck provided a code to order nontoxic lab materials, such as agar plates, so that students can perform some experiments and practice various techniques from the comfort of their homes. Dr. Schuck explained that “with the use of at-home lab kits, everyone can learn crucial lab techniques and gain hands-on experience. And, with everyone doing many of the same experiments, we can feel like a more cohesive group, with everyone involved.” She also explained that for those who are learning remotely and do not have access to the lab materials, the techniques “are replaced with sophisticated simulations that mimic the lab environment, or at-home activities based on teaming up with someone who is working in the lab.”

The genetics laboratory at Stern College has the opportunity to have the same professor for both lecture and laboratory, Dr. Babich, so he is able to fill in the gaps of information between the lecture and laboratory as needed.

For students taking courses such as anatomy and physiology, which are highly dependent on the visual understanding that comes with the laboratory portion, the rise of technical issues has become increasingly frustrating. “Anatomy lab is similar to the lecture in the sense that we have slides, but it is a little more visual. Professor Mollin said we may have in person dissections but I’m not sure when or how that will work so that is frustrating,” Bina Davidson, SCW ‘21, shared with the YU Observer. “For physiology we also have lectures but we also have virtual lab simulations through Labster. I really don’t like the program because there are a lot of technical difficulties. It’s always crashing, The instructions aren’t clear, and if you don’t perform the task exactly as the program wants you to, the program won’t let you continue to the next step,” she continued.

In order to gauge student response to the labs being done virtually, a survey was conducted in September, with 53 out of the 100 respondents having taken science lab courses prior to the Fall 2020 semester. The following lists the percentage of which courses those 53 people are currently taking in current semester: 4.3% biology lab, 14.9% organic chemistry lab, 10.6% physics lab, 10.6% genetics lab, 17% cell biology lab, 14.9% anatomy lab, 4.3% physiology lab, 17% microbiology lab, while 34.1% are not taking any labs. 

When asked about how different or similar the labs are this semester compared to previous semesters, 49% thought they are different, 17% thought they are similar, and 34% thought they are neither different nor similar. 

When asked about the difficulty of the labs this semester compared to previous semesters, 14.9% thought that they are easier, 31.9% thought they are more difficult, while 53.2% found that they are neither more difficult nor easy. 

When asked about the readiness of the professors’ teaching this semester’s virtual labs, 40.4% of the students thought they are prepared, 21.2% thought they are unprepared, while 38.3% thought that they are neither prepared nor unprepared.

Lastly, when asked about the clarity of the lab professors’ teaching styles and the requirements for this semester’s labs, 25.5% of the students thought they are clear, 36.1% thought they are unclear, and 38.3% thought that they are neither clear nor unclear.