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Penn's science departments are each considering different options regarding how labs will be administered this upcoming fall semester.

Credit: Melanie Hilman

Although students are welcomed back to campus for fall 2020, many lab courses will be taught entirely online due to social distancing guidelines. 

Penn announced on June 25 that the upcoming semester will be a hybrid of in-person and online instruction with in-person operations ending Nov. 20. The remainder of the semester will be conducted remotely to limit the spread of coronavirus. Classes with fewer than 25 students may have an in-person option if space permits, according to the University FAQ ‘Student Campus Compact’ page.

Lab courses can meet up to nine hours a week during which students perform lab experiments correlated with the material they have learned in class. 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 223 Experimental Physical Chemistry I, which is 1.0 CU, are their own courses focused solely on labs.


All chemistry lab courses will be taught entirely remotely for fall 2020 with potential optional in-person experience, Merriam Professor of Chemistry and Chemistry Undergraduate Chair Jeffrey Winkler said.

When asked what these remote labs will look like in the fall, Winkler pointed to the success of the summer session lab courses, CHEM 053 and CHEM 247 Experimental Organic Chemistry A, which are being taught entirely online due to the pandemic.

“The plan at this point is to take the things that work best in the summer when we are all remote and integrate those with what worked in the spring to give as a positive of an experience as we can,” Winkler said.

CHEM 247 professor Marisa Kozlowski said she came up with a set of at-home experiments that students could perform in a kitchen using a stove, pots, and pans. The Chemistry department shipped students small kits with other necessary tools such as pipettes, filters, samples to use in experiments, and food coloring, she said. Students are required to upload pictures of their experiments for Kozlowski to review.

Kozlowski added students are able to build their own reactions by selecting reaction conditions, mixing different reagents together, and selecting how reactions are purified at the end using simulation software.

“This [remote lab course] was an experiment, and this is advertised to the students in the first lecture, because it has never been done before, but I think it was largely a successful experiment and that the students are obtaining the skill sets that are normally obtained within the organic chemistry laboratory context,” Kozlowski said.

While Kozlowski said all of her students have access to a kitchen to conduct the experiments in, she acknowledged that in the fall semester, students living in dorms may not have access to a kitchen.

“There were a subset of the experiments that we did that did not require a stove, and we're considering whether it would be a good idea to try and have some at-home components without the stovetop chemistry,” she said.

Kozlowski said trialing the completely remote lab course during the summer on a smaller subset of 30 students offered great insight on which labs would be feasible for the fall.


Undergraduate Physics Lab Manager Peter Harnish said that the Physics department is currently considering three scenarios for fall 2020 labs: completely virtual, a hybrid model, and completely in person. He said, however, the entirely in-person option is unlikely, because the number of lab sections would have to triple in order to follow social distancing guidelines, along with the number of rooms and teaching assistants.

The hybrid model is more likely, Harnish said, as it would allow every other lab to be in person so that lab sections would be offset from each other and social distancing would be more feasible.

Harnish said he is currently waiting on more information from the University, such as fall 2020 room assignments and class sizes, before he can speak any further as to what physics lab courses will look like in the upcoming semester. 

“With the social distancing protocols, the question is how many people can we safely put into a given lab and how many lab rooms we have,” he said.

Physics courses such as PHYS 101 and PHYS 150 Principles of Physics I: Mechanics and Wave Motion, which both have lab components, are being offered remotely this summer. Harnish said students watch videos of him performing labs and complete assignments based on the measurements and data he collects. Students also perform labs themselves while using video analysis on their phones to collect data, he added.


While the Biology department has yet to make a final decision on how lab courses will be conducted in the fall, Chair of the Biology Department Junhyong Kim wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that labs will have to offer a completely remote online option for students who will not be returning to campus. 

"We are hearing from other institutions’ experiences as well as reviewing how things went during our spring semester," Kim wrote.

Biology professor Linda Robinson, who teaches BIOL 101 Introduction to Biology A, wrote in an email to the DP that she is unsure whether labs will be able to be conducted in person and is waiting to hear from the College office for more information. 


Mike Kaplan, lab coordinator for BIBB 109 Introduction To Brain and Behavior and lecturer for BIBB 251 Cellular Neurobiology, said he plans for the labs in both courses to be taught remotely with potential optional in-person experience. 

"We might be able to do a split section [of the 20-person lab sections] and still do that with social distancing, but we have to make everything optional at this point, so we have to give students the option of opting out and we have to give TAs the option of opting out," he said.

Kaplan said similar to the lab component of BIBB 109 during Summer Session I, students in the fall will watch videos of him performing the labs and analyze provided data sets. Other experiments will run as computer simulations which students must access through a piece of software, he added.

While the majority of students in the summer course were able to run the simulation, Kaplan said some students could not install the software and therefore had to watch a recorded version of the simulation. He added that this could be a potential issue for students who will be taking labs in the fall.

Instead of the two-day sheep brain dissection that students would normally conduct in person, he said the School of Veterinary Medicine provided videos of a faculty member dissecting a sheep brain for the remote summer course.

"We lose something by not dissecting sheep brains ourself, but we gain something by watching a real expert do it," Kaplan said.

Kaplan said the remote instruction caused by the pandemic has forced him to be creative and discover new ways to approach labs he has been running for about a decade now at Penn.

"When we go back to in-person teaching, my in-person activities are going to benefit hugely from the stuff we are trying to work out in the remote period here," he said.

Staff reporter Hannah Gross contributed reporting.

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