Faculty Creativity Gets Students Back in the Lab

What does it take to bring science students to campus during a global pandemic, so they can get the hands-on laboratory experience that’s an essential part of their learning?

The answer, as Alverno’s faculty have demonstrated, is a little creative thinking and ingenuity, solid communication and problem solving skills, and above all, unwavering dedication to student success.

After the pandemic required spring 2020 courses to shift online, Alverno’s physical sciences department spent the summer working to prepare for in-person instruction for certain lab-focused courses in the fall 2020 semester.

Among the safety solutions they implemented are: decreased class sizes, utilizing lab spaces in new ways, modifying class schedules to keep class sizes low, instituting new lab procedures to avoid sharing supplies and materials, adopting a protocol to clean and sanitize workspaces before and after use, and adjusting lesson plans to reflect new safety and physical distancing requirements.

“My biochemistry class meets online on Mondays and Wednesdays and has face-to-face lab work every Tuesday,” says Heather Mernitz, professor of physical sciences. “In the first few weeks of the semester, we used to do three to four mini labs per week. Normally, everyone would do the first lab together, and then we would all move on to the second lab, and so on. Now, it’s staggered — a few students are working on one mini lab, and a few are working on another.”

Mernitz credits physical sciences lab manager Jenna Coss for helping creative new ideas to life, like preparing bins with all the materials students need for weekly lab experiments in order to minimize their movement throughout lab during these high-enrollment courses.

For longer, more detailed labs that happen later in the semester, Mernitz, Coss and student lab assistants have shifted from setting up one lab for all students to work on together to instead set up all five labs each week for students to rotate through independently.

“We’re not all working with the same equipment or supplies this way,” Mernitz says. “It all worked out. The students have been so flexible and accommodating.”

On one Tuesday in early October, students in physical sciences professor Tracy Thompson’s organic chemistry class were spread out across three lab spaces. They were busy synthesizing methyl salicylate, more commonly known as oil of wintergreen, which provides the minty scent in your gum or toothpaste. Each student had her own individual workspace, and each wore a mask, goggles and gloves.

“We’re able to be six feet apart. We have our own supplies. The students are respectful,” says Gaonou Xiong, one of Thompson’s students and a biomedical sciences major.

Later that day, the same safety and spacing procedures were on display as Mernitz’s biochemistry students were hard at work at their individual lab stations. Like Thompson did during her class, Mernitz donned a face shield along with her mask as she moved throughout the rooms to check in with students. The labs they were working on included using a spectrometer to measure enzyme kinetics and using chromatography techniques to separate mixtures of proteins.

Even while they’re socially distanced, the students are still able to learn from each other.

“As students rotate labs, they can serve as experts for the others and provide guidance,” says Mernitz.

Mernitz restructured her class to complete labs in the first half of the semester, after which time students will pool the data they collected, analyze it and work on writing formal lab reports as well as a mock manuscript for a scientific publication. This work can be done remotely, ensuring that students continue to have a meaningful and safe learning experience.

“The faculty have found a way for lab courses to be safe and allow the students to demonstrate the outcomes we want them to achieve,” she says.

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