Modifying labs for distance learning

Grace Williams, Staff Writer

Scanning the screen, she saw her colleagues staring back, their faces occupying the small spaces of the group Zoom. She took notes as the presenter spoke, learning the tips and tricks of managing the impending online Fall semester. Professor Stephanie Cowell then waited anxiously for news of the upcoming school year as the dream of a lab-filled future for her chemistry students seemingly slipped further away.

We’re trying to be responsive to a lot of different potential situations that students are in.”

— Professor Stephanie Cowell


On Aug. 15, Westmont President Gayle Beebe announced a four-week delay of campus repopulation in the midst of Governor Newsom’s tiered reopening plan. This news meant that labs, which would have been held in-person, shifted to an online format. 

“For this semester, the students haven’t had the lab experience, at least in a college setting,” said Professor Stephanie Cowell. “Originally, when we thought we were going to start the semester in-person, we had planned to cut our lab activities in half and rotate subsections through, then they would leave and another group would come in.”

According to Cowell, because of this shift, the chemistry department decided to send their lab students small packets of materials containing almost everything they needed for four weeks of labs. 

“When we were thinking of what to send out to the students for the lab, we were thinking about what we use in a normal lab, and how accessible that is. A lot of things won’t make sense for people who are doing this in their homes, they don’t have access to the equipment we do,” Cowell said. “We had to think about the things people have normally in their homes and how to make sure our labs are equitable for all students. We’re trying to be responsive to a lot of different potential situations that students are in. It’s not super technical, but still allows students to work with actual chemical techniques and the theory behind why we do what we do.”

Teaching the physiology course and lab during the fall 2020 semester, Dr. Steve Julio said he approached the lab process by identifying the most important aspect of each, and trying to convey that to the students in an online format. 

“My thinking was this: we can actually do that part of the lab, take the data, analyze it, and figure out the biological meaning all without doing the experiment,” Dr. Julio said. “I had data from last year [so] we analyzed it as though we all did the experiment. It’s just something to do during this caveat of not being able to actually do the lab.”

Though the situation was not ideal, Dr. Julio said he was grateful that the Westmont students received his plan well. 

“To their credit, Westmont students are just by-and-large very gracious. They understood that professors were having to modify what was their previous normal, and especially in the lab situation, our hands were kind of tied,” Dr. Julio said. “I had no push-back, students were very willing to go along with this plan and understood that I was just trying to give them the best lab experience. They took me at my word, and it’s working, even if it’s not optimal.”

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