Remote science labs set students up for in-person failure

Devyn McCray is a junior biology major.

GRAPHIC BY CLARA SNOYER/FOGHORN

When USF announced we would be spending the fall semester in a completely online format, they said that tuition would not be dropping, suggesting that the value of our education would remain the same. However, after being in class for five weeks as a science major, I believe my experience with taking a lab course remotely has been anything but educational or hands-on. 

Science labs now mean three to four hours of busywork, watching videos before class on the lab, and turning in a short assignment to show our comprehension. No actual laboratory work is done on the students’ part, and this is incredibly problematic for such a critically kinesthetic skill. 

Labs are all about hands-on experience. It is almost impossible to absorb anything from going to the lab once a week without actually performing an experiment. Labs are specifically designed for the kinesthetic learners who need physical demonstrations to cement complex concepts and processes into their brains, giving real-life examples to the topics discussed in a lecture. Not only are we continuing to pay full price for an unsatisfactory education, but students who need a hands-on approach to learning are now unable to receive this approach unless they facilitate it on their own. 

For example, dissections are a huge part of the second-semester general biology laboratory. Thus, it complicates things when all we can do is watch videos of our professor dissecting an animal. As someone with dreams of being a surgeon, I may have just missed my first opportunity to hold a scalpel. 

Organic chemistry labs also require lots of specific equipment, with lab materials being set up in a very specific way. If students aren’t physically in the lab, how are we really learning to use all of this equipment, or even where to find it? The real problem will then occur when campus reopens and students actually encounter expensive and dangerous equipment and procedures that they have never touched. Returning to the in-person lab format will be one of the hardest adjustments for science students since we will have missed almost a years’ worth of critical hands-on experience. We are subjecting a whole student body to failure of grasping scientific processes because of the half-assed education of science labs in a remote modality. 

Over the past few months, I’ve taken more of my learning into my own hands to supplement my Zoom education. YouTube is an extremely valuable resource, providing easy access to millions of videos on a variety of scientific topics and lab procedures that explain specific concepts and processes. There are additional ways that USF could attempt to help science students through this difficult period of their learning, but it might be too late this semester. Some professors at Washington State University began the school year by mailing out boxes of supplies for their students to perform labs at home; it would be extremely useful if USF professors were able to adopt this creative solution to help students understand how to physically carry out various procedures. Besides this, professors at other universities, such as Dartmouth College, utilize virtual simulations to demonstrate how to use various equipment in a lab and how to carry out an experiment. Both of these would prove more helpful than simply watching a professor carry out an assigned experiment.

Though my experience in the sciences at USF had previously been positive, I am unfortunately now not learning what I will need to get into medical school, and I’m sure many of my peers can relate to this. Our virtual science labs are seriously lacking, and when I will be asked to perform a skill or even find something in a future lab, I will be screwed. This is extremely problematic as proficiency in labs is an important requirement for a lot of grad schools, including medical school, pharmaceutical school, and some science-specific graduate programs. Because of this, it’s important that we utilize the online resources that are all around us if we’re going to be successful and not dreadfully behind for our future undergraduate classes and graduate school. As a student body settling for less since it’s out of our control, we need to get ready for when we will be back on campus eventually, because labs will be as hands-on as ever, and we will be coming in ill-prepared.

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