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Collaboration and innovation key to delivering molecular science labs online to students


School of Molecular Sciences Instructor Timothy Lamb is recorded as he prepares an online instructional lab for students.

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March 30, 2020

Laboratory classes are a vital part of any science program. Arizona State University's transition to online at the end of spring break required an innovative, collaborative response by the School of Molecular Sciences to move nearly 200 lab sections online in just four days.

“We have nearly 4,000 students taking our lab classes,” said Beatriz Smith, School of Molecular Sciences lab manager, “and preparing these labs to be delivered online in such a short amount of time was a true team effort.”

Several large universities in other states stopped classes for one or two weeks while making the transition to full online delivery. ASU did not.

Graduate students, teaching assistants, staff and faculty ended spring break early to answer the call to move recitations, lectures and labs online.

Preparing to deliver labs to 2,500 students in freshman-level General Chemistry and 1,000 students in sophomore-level Organic Chemistry classes was not trivial. Faculty and teaching assistants filmed lab experiments, which were then edited and uploaded onto various platforms for student access. Lab videos allow students to see how laboratory experiments are performed safely, as well as how laboratory equipment is set up and used properly while providing data needed for their assignments.

Upper-division biochemistry labs presented additional challenges that were creatively turned into opportunities.

“Biochemistry experiments tend to have a lot of incubation/waiting time,” noted School of Molecular Sciences Principal Lecturer Scott Lefler.

In some experiments, the time of a reaction or how long a process takes is significant information. In putting the final video together, the time stamps of the videos indicated the elapsed time between steps of the experiment, capturing this information for students. Additionally, the time it took for processes to occur allowed for innovative recording.

“With a lot of coordination of start times, we staggered the experiments so that I was constantly moving from one experiment to another, capturing about five to 10 minutes of video at a time. Ultimately, we were able to coordinate such that in about 4.5 hours we recorded the video footage for four different lab experiments.”  

The online labs are a success; in the first week there were nearly 8,000 views.

“Students are using the videos and data we provide them to submit their assignments individually, which they are used to doing by now,” said School of Molecular Sciences Instructor Tim Lamb. “We have our first round of assignments coming in this week, but so far it looks like everyone is watching the videos at least once and there were no major issues.”

Video by the School of Molecular Sciences

Instruction is supplemented by online discussion boards staffed and monitored by teaching assistants and faculty who help students with any questions they have. Students are encouraged to maintain communication with their lab group to make sure assignments are completed and submitted on time.

Keeping things running smoothly requires constant attention. Weekly meetings are held via Zoom by faculty and staff to monitor and assess the current labs, as well as to prepare for future labs.

“We ask students to check their ASU email frequently,” Smith said, “and also to provide feedback so that we can improve the next round of labs.” 

It has definitely been a team effort.

“I really need to give credit to my TAs on this," Lefler said, "as they came in to the lab ready to go and did an excellent job keeping the experiments moving and narrating what was being done." 

“I am so proud of our team of faculty, instructors, graduate students and staff who managed one of the largest restructuring of our teaching mission in recent history in just four short days," said Ian Gould, interim director of the School of Molecular Sciences. "Lab courses are the most challenging of all to put online, and the different and inventive ways this was pulled off so quickly speaks to the creativity and dedication of our teams.” 

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