Missouri S&T lab courses are “virtually” hands-on

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On August 18, 2020

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Automation engineering lab in electrical and computer engineering

As students return to campus at Missouri S&T, many will be in hybrid courses that blend in-person and online education, and some may still be strictly online due to continuing social distance requirements. The move to online courses in the spring to protect students and faculty from COVID-19 was an exceptional challenge, one that was particularly complex for traditional hands-on laboratory courses. At Missouri S&T, professors developed ways to offer their labs as close as possible to actually being there.

Dr. Kelvin Erickson, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering, meets with his students on Zoom to design automated systems for manufacturing, such as robotics, assembly, and warehouse storage and retrieval systems, in a class on programmable manufacturing automation.

“We were going in with a program that we had already written and just trying to test it out and see if that program worked properly,” says Timothy Cochran, a senior in electrical engineering from O’Fallon, Missouri. “We were able to use cameras that were already in the lab to pan around and see that our machine was doing what we wanted it to do.”

With the help of several ceiling-mounted cameras and large monitors on the walls, Dr. Erickson and his teaching assistant are able to offer six remote lab stations.

“We figured out that one person can handle three teams of students online,” says Erickson. “That’s about half of what one person can do if students are all in class. That’s why we doubled up and had two teaching assistants in each lab section last spring.”

To observe social distancing this fall, the class will be offered in hybrid form. Erickson says one student will be at each station in the lab while another is online. The next week, they will switch. But Erickson says he is able to take the lab back online completely if needed.

“I try to get as close as possible to being physically present in the lab,” he says. “We don’t teach the distance students by themselves because we came to see that learning is better in teams.”

Erickson says he had experience with virtual instruction because of a cooperative engineering degree program between Missouri S&T and Missouri State University in Springfield that began more than a decade ago. Students on the Springfield campus take civil, electrical or mechanical engineering courses taught remotely by S&T faculty.

Taking hard science online in chemistry

Not all professors and students experienced that type of head start on distance learning. For instance, the American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training (CPT) requires in-person chemistry lab attendance for chemistry majors. However, the CPT allowed the use of virtual labs for institutions that chose last spring to move to online instruction due to COVID-19, saying that temporary use of virtual labs would not affect chemistry degree-program approval status.

Dr. Klaus Woelk, associate professor of chemistry at S&T, and Dr. Philip Whitefield, Chancellor’s Professor and professor emeritus of chemistry, have written a paper about their experiences with online chemistry labs to provide best practices for other educators in similar circumstances.

Woelk and Whitefield’s paper, titled “As Close as It Might Get to the Real Lab Experience – Livestreamed Laboratory Activities,” is available online and is scheduled to be published in a special September edition of the Journal of Chemical Education.

Screen shot of virtual chemistry lab
A screenshot of an experiment in Dr. Klaus Woelk’s and Dr. Philip Whitefield’s virtual chemistry lab.

“To provide the best possible lab experience for students who could not physically be present, we offer livestreamed, real-time demonstrations of the scheduled lab experiments,” says Woelk. “Students are required to actively participate by naming compounds, balancing chemical equations and predicting outcomes of the experiments, as well as calculating masses, amounts and concentrations for the chemicals used.”

S&T’s social distancing guidelines limit the maximum number of people in a lab to three, and each virtual lab has an instructor, a teaching assistant and a camera operator. There are two cameras; one is fixed on the chalkboard where the instructor writes formulas, and the other is a portable webcam that moves around the room and shows close-ups of chemical measures, mixtures and reactions. Woelk says the camera operator always has the right-of-way, so the others move back at least six feet to observe social distancing.

The three-hour lab sessions include time for Zoom break-out sessions in groups of four students. The students are able to discuss the experiment and make calculations before they are called back to the main room to give their answers.

Since the experiments are live, there is no editing, which is unusual for online labs. Typically, chemists perform the experiment then cut to the results, reducing the actual time required for chemical reactions. Whitefield says edited videos can take something complicated and make it look deceptively simple, and that’s what he and Woelk are trying to avoid. He compares traditional, pre-recorded online labs to a cooking show.

“How helpful is it when the chef says to sauté the onions until they’re translucent, then the camera cuts to the finished onions?” he says. “You sit there and think, ‘How long do you cook them? I don’t know.’”

In the livestream labs, any mistakes and spills are included. That’s important, the professors say, because the students can learn from the mistakes and see that spills are cleaned in accordance with safety guidelines. In fact, students in Woelk and Whitefield’s virtual labs write safety rules for the instructor and the teaching assistant as part of the coursework.

A challenge for virtual labs is the lack of sensory experience, especially smell. The sense of smell is an important detector in chemistry, the professors say.

“Some substances smell fruity, some are minty, some produce a rough smell, and we need to be creative to emulate that online for our students,” Woelk says. “When students are back on campus, I think we’ll send them little samples. Once the experiment is done, I can have them open the sample of the product and they can report the scent.”

There are other drawbacks. Woelk and Whitefield say that in large groups, some students don’t participate in the breakout sessions. Some log in only for the points given and pay no attention to the livestream.

“In future sessions, we may require students to add screenshots of the livestreamed sessions to their post-lab reports and provide individual answers to assigned tasks during the livestream,” says Woelk. “We will not share recordings of the labs because it might be too tempting for students to skip through to the parts they need for the post-lab report.”

“Which again would make the livestreamed labs just another cooking show,” Whitefield adds.

Classes for the fall 2020 semester begin Aug. 24. With students back on campus, chemistry majors will once again be required to attend lab classes in person, as will students in chemistry-heavy fields such as biology, physics and several engineering fields, based on recommendations from the S&T chemistry department. That affects about 144 students, who will attend in-person classes with COVID-19 distancing restrictions in place. About 400 students will continue livestreamed online instruction.

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On August 18, 2020.

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