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Students in PHYS 102 labs are required to complete three labs by the end of the semester through video analysis.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Students in lab courses are raising concerns over missing out on vital hands-on learning that cannot be reproduced via virtual experiments.

Online classes began on Monday after Penn canceled in-person classes two weeks ago to limit the spread of coronavirus. Some lab classes were canceled altogether, while others were replaced with pre-recorded videos of professors and teaching assistants performing the labs. 

Students said they were worried about missing out on experience that can only be gained from working in a lab setting and criticized professors for leaving students lacking information about how labs will be conducted less than 24 hours before the first day of online classes.

Lab courses meet up to nine hours a week, allowing students to perform experiments that correlate with material taught in lectures. They can serve as components of a course or a singular course focused only on labs.

College sophomore Sarah Reichard, who is enrolled in CHEM 245 Experimental Organic Chemistry, said that while she recognizes that lab professors are in a difficult position, she fears that the lack of a physical lab experience will hinder her ability to learn the techniques necessary for future research labs and employment opportunities.

“If I were to go do a research internship, I would feel a little under-prepared,” she said.

Reichard will complete her remaining lab assignments in CHEM 245 by watching and analyzing videos of TAs performing the labs.

College first-year Gina Chryssofos is enrolled in CHEM 054 General Chemistry Laboratory II, a stand-alone lab course, and BIOL 102 Introduction to Biology B, which has a lab component associated with the lecture. 

Chryssofos said she is upset that she will not be able to partake in dissections that BIOL 102 students would have performed later this semester, as she was hoping the hands-on experience would help her decide if she wanted to become a doctor. 

“Lab is such a hands-on course that I knew would be difficult to conduct virtually,” College first-year and CHEM 054 student Julia Fiedor said. “It’s hard to mimic the technology that we have in labs at someone’s house.”

BIOL 102 students will complete the remaining lab assignments by analyzing data collected in previous years.

Some students said they had not received any information regarding how their lab classes would be conducted online until the night before online classes began, leaving students feeling anxious and confused. 

College sophomore Tanya Gupta, who is enrolled in PHYS 102 General Physics: Electromagnetism, Optics, and Modern Physics, which has a lab component, said she had received no information about how labs would function online as of Sunday evening. 

Chryssofos said she too had not received concrete information about BIOL 102 lab with less than 24 hours before her first virtual class.

PHYS 102 students will complete the remaining labs virtually by analyzing videos of Undergraduate Physics Lab Manager Peter Harnish performing the labs. CHEM 054 students will finish the semester by analyzing data and pictures of different parts of the remaining experiments that were taken by Chemistry professor Jenine Maeyer and CHEM 054 TAs.

“I think it will be difficult not seeing your TA or professors face-to-face,” Fiedor said. “I rely on my TA to ask questions.”

Fiedor added that although virtual labs are not ideal, Maeyer and the CHEM 054 TAs are working hard to ensure students have enough resources and opportunities to ask questions considering the unprecedented circumstances. 

Fiedor said CHEM 054 has extended lab assignment deadlines from the end of the lab period to the end of the week and given students a week-long break from labs to ease the transition to online classes.

“I definitely don’t think [online labs] will be anywhere near the same as doing it in person,” Chryssofos said. 

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