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Many lab classes will now have students perform online simulations or watch videos of professors and TAs completing the labs. Credit: Melanie Hilman

On Monday, Penn students attended class virtually for the first time since the University announced the cancellation of in-person classes due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many discussion-based classes were able to shift class to video conference platforms such as Zoom, but professors of lab-dependent courses have been scrambling to transition to hands-on learning online.

Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Bruce Lenthall said he immediately realized transitioning lab courses online would be an issue when Penn announced the decision to move to online classes for the remainder of the semester.

Lab courses can meet up to nine hours a week during which students perform lab experiments correlated with material they have learned in class. Students must then complete lab assignments using observations made and data collected from the lab. Labs can be a component of a course, making a class such as PHYS 101 General Physics: Mechanics, Heat and Sound 1.5 CU instead of 1.0 CU. Other labs such as CHEM 053 General Chemistry Laboratory I, which is 0.5 CU, and CHEM 245 Experimental Organic Chemistry, which is 1.0 CU, are its own courses focused solely on labs.

Some lab classes have been canceled altogether while others will require students to watch and analyze pre-recorded videos of their teaching assistants completing the labs. In some cases, professors are still determining whether they will adjust the grading in their classes.

Physics labs

The lab components of PHYS 101 and PHYS 250 Principles of Physics IV: Modern Physics have been canceled, Undergraduate Physics Lab Manager Peter Harnish said. PHYS 101 and 250 students will receive full lab credit for the work they completed before spring break, Harnish added.

Students in PHYS 171 Honors Physics II: Electromagnetism and Radiation will also receive credit for the lab portion but will be strongly encouraged to watch and read a presentation of the last three case studies of the course, Harnish said. Harnish said the course is based on doing case studies that expose students to many different phenomena that all have a similar underlying model and mechanism.

PHYS 150 Principles of Physics I: Mechanics and Wave Motion, PHYS 151 Principles of Physics II: Electromagnetism and Radiation, and PHYS 102 General Physics: Electromagnetism, Optics, and Modern Physics students will complete virtual labs that are comparable to the labs they would have performed in class, Harnish said. Students will use the video analysis feature of Logger Pro, a data–collection software, to analyze videos of Harnish performing the labs and data he collected.

“Labs are a very undervalued part of education,” Harnish said. “The act of going through it yourself can really crystallize things for students, can really allow them to start gaining intuition about how these things work.”

In order to ease some of the pressure students might be feeling, Harnish said students in PHYS 150, 151, and 102 will have until the end of the semester to complete the required labs, rather than having a lab due at the end of each lab period.

Chemistry labs

CHEM 053 and CHEM 054 General Chemistry Laboratory II have nine labs each, and students in both classes have already completed six of them, Chemistry professor Jenine Maeyer said. For the remaining labs, Maeyer said she and her TAs have taken pictures of different parts of the experiments and gathered data for students to analyze and make observations.

“Using that to complete the last few assignments, it’s not ideal and it’s certainly not going to take the place of doing the actual experiments, but it was the best way to get [the] information for the experiments done quickly,” Maeyer said.

Maeyer added that she and lab coordinators from other Ivy League institutions began discussing how to proceed with their lab courses after Columbia University and Princeton University announced they were moving to online classes earlier this month.

Students in CHEM 053 and 054 will have from Monday to Friday to complete their lab assignments which are traditionally due at the end of each lab period, Maeyer said. She added that she is still figuring out how to adjust grading in the class, which will depend on factors such as how many students choose to opt–in pass/fail based on a survey she sent out.

Merriam Chemistry professor and Chemistry Undergraduate Chair Jeffrey Winkler said CHEM 245 students will watch videos of TAs performing the labs to complete their lab reports.

CHEM 245 is a nine–hour per week lab course studying a variety of organic reactions and multistep syntheses.

Winkler said that CHEM 245 lecturer Jennifer Rutherford and TAs "scrambled" to record all videos of the labs before the Chemistry building shut down. The University announced that researchers must discontinue all non–essential on–campus research activities by March 17 to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

CHEM 245 has also replaced the second and third exams with a single final project where students must design an experimental procedure for the multi–step synthesis of an organic compound, according to the updated course syllabus.

Biology labs

Chair of the Biology Department Junhyong Kim said all biology labs will be replaced with online lab courses or videos made by lab instructors, which will give students the best opportunity to learn the logic of designing and interpreting experiments.

“There’s just no getting around the fact that we won’t be able to deliver our course content to the degree that we had originally hoped to deliver,” Kim said.

He added that the Biology department is still determining whether there will be a department–wide change to grading or if it will be left to each professor's discretion. 

Biology professor Linda Robinson teaches BIOL 101 Introduction to Biology A and BIOL 102 Introduction to Biology B, which both have lab components, and has taken over instruction for BIOL 124 Introductory Organismal Biology Lab. Robinson said she will give her students data from previous years to analyze and complete the lab assignments.

Robinson said that while students can do experimental design and data analysis online, they will miss out on learning to use the equipment and the “unknown” aspect of experimental biology labs.

“It’s the lab work that makes it so interesting and exciting, and that’s what you don’t get from the online environment," she said.

Electrical & Systems Engineering labs

Director of Electrical and Systems Engineering Lab Programs Sid Deliwala said in labs where professors cannot substitute the software or use simulations such as in ESE 150 Digital Audio Basics and ESE 516 IoT Edge Computing, Penn is shipping parts and development kits to students so they can continue learning remotely. 

ESE 150 teaches students the basic technical underpinnings of modern MP3 players and cell phones.

ESE 516 consists of a "heavy hands–on component to build a device from end to end" and teaches students how to use industry–standard tools such as Altium, Atmel Studio, and IBM Watson.

“I’m hoping that the tech will save us,” Deliwala said.

Senior reporter Ashley Ahn contributed reporting.