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LSA freshman Ishi Shukla felt lucky to have had her Biology 173 lab section earlier than others. Her group had finished the wet lab portion of an assignment to examine their own fecal matter before other sections later that day.
So when the University of Michigan announced the suspension of in-person classes on March 11, Shukla and her classmates had the data they needed to complete the assignment. Others did not.
“For other lab sections of (Bio 173), it was definitely more tricky,” Shukla said. “Honestly, shout out to all the professors who have had to put in all this extra time to get classes in this type of virtual mode because they only had two days to do it. It’s pretty impressive.”
As a result of transitioning classes to online platforms, lab courses have been faced with the challenge of administering the physical components of their curricula virtually. In an email to The Michigan Daily, Tim McKay, physics, astronomy and education professor and LSA associate dean for undergraduate education, explained how the University is adjusting to these changes.
According to McKay, there are a variety of approaches among lab courses. The most common is for graduate students to perform labs through video presentations and then for students to analyze the data produced. McKay gave Ginger Shultz, assistant professor of chemistry, as an example: With less than a week to move her Chemistry 211 course online, Shultz and three graduate students recorded four weeks of experiments in one day for her 771 students.
“Instructors always have a great deal of autonomy in the design and delivery of their courses, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that,” McKay wrote. “Sometimes, we have to make a big collective decision, like moving all courses to remote instruction and Pass/No Record COVID grading. But the instructional team for each course is responsible for deciding what course adjustments would be best and how to make them.”
LSA freshman Sharon Shaw, who is taking both Biology 173 and Chemistry 211, said the ease of adjustment was different for the two courses. Shaw emphasized that the consistency of her professors’ communication and assignment uploads determined the success of the online transition.
“For Bio 173, it has kind of been confusing,” Shaw said. “Because everything is online, professors can technically upload anything anytime they want, and this past week my professor hasn’t uploaded anything.”
Shaw said she feels her lab courses are less rigorous without conducting experiments and collecting data. She said she misses the in-person interactions with her labmates and worries she is not learning skills that come with hands-on experience.
“I’d totally rather drag myself to an 8 a.m. lab,” Shaw said. “I know it sounds horrible, but I would much rather do that and actually see what’s going on in lab and collect my own data than just take other people’s data.”
Engineering freshman Chase Hartley’s Math 215 lab still allows students to work in groups with their former labmates. However, group projects for his Engineering 100 and Physics 141 courses have been replaced with individual work.
“It’s been a little bit of a struggle trying to do physics lab by myself, since I’m so used to collaborating with other people,” Hartley said. “That’s been the toughest part. You just have to get into a routine and then figure it out.”
According to McKay, grading procedures are “very contextual” for these courses. He wrote the University has encouraged creativity and cooperation among instructors and students to solve challenges in making both large and small changes to assignments.
He wrote that each instructional team determines how grading guidelines change if needed. Looking to the future, McKay wrote spring and summer courses will show the lessons learned from the winter semester.
“These spring/summer courses will incorporate a variety of improvements, all made possible by the fact that we have more than a weekend to spend designing them,” McKay wrote.
McKay wrote creative ideas were emerging in preparation for these semesters, including geology classes where students will be asked to do local fieldwork and contribute to a class-wide data set.
LSA freshman Heather Sherr did not initially consider remote learning when planning her schedule for next fall. She is currently registered for two courses with lab sections, but is concerned about how they would be impacted if courses were to remain online.
As a pre-medical student, Sherr plans to get other requirements out of the way and delay taking courses with lab components if remote learning continues. She feels that this semester has helped her work on her weaknesses as a student.
“I’m learning to be more independent with how I get my work done and be on my own clock,” Sherr said. “I’m setting time management skills and setting my own routine … and learning how to communicate better with my peers.”
McKay echoed this sentiment. He wrote students should see their responses to this challenge as a success.
“As the end of this term approaches, we hope you will be proud of all you've done to help the community get through this, know that this is a term we will all always remember, and be prepared to continue to help the University, our many communities, and the world work through this pandemic,” McKay wrote.
Daily Staff Reporter Ayse Eldes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.