University of Findlay “Experimenting” with Virtual Science Labs in Wake of COVID-19
The scientists, doctors and others who are working diligently to alleviate and eventually find a vaccine for Coronavirus COVID-19 were once college students, bursting with potential and being prepared to take their knowledge out into the world.
But what if getting that knowledge to the future doctors of scientists today is done virtually? Is it possible to create and carry out a hands-on lab in a virtual setting?
For current University of Findlay students, and those who educate them in fields requiring experimentation, the answer is yes. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting virtual learning that it has brought about, has presented some hurdles in the way of hands-on experimenting, but those hurdles are being cleared by educators like Justin Rheubert, UF Instructor of Teaching in Biology, and Abby Levitt, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology at the University, as well as others like them.
Rheubert said that the biology department was ready as soon as the possibility of virtual classes across the board was considered. The result, then, due to that foresight and preparedness, is that biology students can continue to do lab work, albeit in a different fashion. “Our work doubled in those few days, for sure,” he said. “We were all trying to prepare as thoroughly as possible for whatever we would face, and we were helping others to do the same thing.” The idea was to take on a bit of additional stress in those early stages, so there would be less for others down the road, especially students. “Think about it,” Rheubert continued. “I have one class to take care of; students have, sometimes, upwards of seven classes. We needed to do all we could to alleviate that anxiety for them.”
In order to prepare for the movement to remote learning, Rheubert said that he acquired some extra technology to create the best online setting that he possibly could. In essence, he built the equivalent to a small recording studio in a lab in the Davis Building where classes and labs are held throughout the year. He got a tablet to use as a whiteboard so students in the virtual lab and class can actually see what he is writing on their screen in real time, and he got a podcast-level microphone to assure his lectures and communication were clear and without misunderstanding. “I spent hours making videos,” he said. “I was learning new things too.”
In addition to the recorded lectures, Rheubert and others are using the same class time that was used for actual classes before the advent of this new learning phase for live question and answer sessions. During that period of time, students can ask any and all questions pertaining to their curriculum. Levitt, by way of her own remote setup in her office across the hall, spoke from within the virtual classroom set up by Rheubert, demonstrating how the “classroom” works. Her face appeared on the screen in real time. “We’re trying to keep their schedules the same,” she said. “We tell them that that part needs to be the same as before – stay in the rhythm of class. So, our goal was to keep the courses as ‘same’ as possible.”
Part of that sameness is using the tools available to them to create this virtual lab atmosphere. Rheubert said that he’s doing a couple of things, specifically, to mimic as closely as possible the lab experience that students get physically. There’s a website, for instance, that allows students to look at the microscopic anatomy of the digestive system as if they’re looking at a slide under an actual microscope. “A ‘virtual scope,” Rheubert explained. “They can look at the slide of a stomach of a cow, for example. They can move it around, magnify it; all of the things you can do with a real microscope.” He further illustrated how, since his class is scheduled to focus on exercise physiology, the students will experiment with things like heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure by partaking in a physical activity at home that changes their respiratory function. “They can record it at home and add the data to a community lab dataset, then students analyze the data and draw conclusions from their analyses.”
Just because classes and labs are temporarily online, however, doesn’t mean that any of the resulting work has lost its weight. Rheubert offered that students can’t take this opportunity to make their studies less important. “Students don’t get to lay in bed until 11 a.m. because of this,” he said. “We can’t let habits change. They’ll be expected to get up and do the work with the same schedule. You can’t slack off in biology or anywhere else in college.”
Clearly, what is remaining as the norm for UF is the willingness and desire of its faculty and staff to model the determination that it takes to get through tough challenges, whether academic or otherwise, to show students that what they do right now will help them to discover hidden abilities and strengths for the future. At UF, the potential for meaningful lives and productive careers is still being crafted, and that will never change.