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Online Labs? How Haverford Science Courses are Adapting to the New Normal

As Haverford moved online, professors and students alike struggled to navigate the new normal. And, to courses with a practical component, virtual learning posed an even more fundamental question: how do you host a class when core requirements are mastering physical skills? 

Several departments housed in the KINSC faced this quarandry. Many science courses require students to conduct lab work in “wet labs,” spaces designed to house potentially toxic chemicals and biological substances. To receive a passing grade in such courses, students need to demonstrate specific competencies in those rooms: for instance, in order to pass Organic Chemistry, students must perform a distillation 

“I think most people would agree with me that there’s really no way to fully recreate a wet lab experience virtually. I mean there’s just some things you have to be in the laboratory conducting the experiment. If you didn’t have to be, then we wouldn’t have them, right?” said Jamie Becker,  Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology. “It’s expensive to maintain a wet lab, and all the reagents, and equipment, and instruments. If that wasn’t necessary, if you could do it all through a computer, they wouldn’t exist.” 

Time spent in these labs are the cornerstone of many science majors’ experiences at Haverford. In fact, some of the most infamous courses at Haverford are the so-called “Superlabs”—the junior year research seminars for biology and chemistry majors where students typically spend six hours in wet lab every week—and Haverford is known for the amount of time students spend in lab before they graduate. 

“As a senior applying to graduate school in genetics, my wet lab experience was vital in helping me understand what field I wanted to pursue and what types of labs I would be interested in working,” said Abigail Mumme-Monheit ’20, a biology major. “I firmly believe that without my wet lab experiences at Haverford, I would not have gotten into graduate school. Further, extensive time in lab at Haverford made me feel confident that laboratory based research is what I would like to do as my career.” 

the shift to virtual learning meant many professors were forced to radically restructure the rest of their courses and change the expectations, and skills, that students are typically expected to learn. However, professors remain confident that students can still obtain valuable skills during this time period. 

“We have goals in our lab classes that are associated with dealing with the literature and making presentations and things like that. And so, we can still do things like that online,” said Casey Londergan,  Professor of Chemistry and the chair of the department. 

Examples of how classes are adapting include Chem 112 and Chem 114—courses typically known as “gen chem”—introducing an independent project about alternative energy technology instead of building fuel cells in the lab. In the biology Superlab, students are analyzing data relating to fish behavior that they collected earlier in the semester.

Roshan Jain, Assistant Professor of Biology, has also adopted an optimistic outlook on these changes: “I think this sort of science writing and revising process and doing that in a collaborative way is a challenging thing for students to do. And I think there’s a lot of time that could be spent there that we often don’t get the chance to spend time on.”

However, for seniors, who have spent the past year working on their theses, the loss of lab time hits particularly hard. Mumme-Monheit was unable to finish the experimentation and data collection needed for her thesis. As a result, she lacks final results for her project and can only speculate about what she might have found. 

“I was very excited about finishing my thesis after break, but am now finding it hard to motivate myself to finish a thesis that I feel will be incomplete,” she said. 

Moreover, even for students in science classes that do not require lab time, the switch to virtual learning has been challenging. Many courses that require collaboration on problem sets, but as students deal with differing time zones, shoddy internet access, and caring for loved ones, this process can become challenging. 

“It is a lot harder to collaborate on problem sets, even utilizing video calls and virtual whiteboards. Part of that is definitely because my internet access is limited—I don’t even have cell service at my mom’s house— but there’s definitely something lost from not working in the same physical space as my classmates,” said Helena Frisbie-Firsching ’21, a physics major. 

The move to virtual learning has been impacting our whole community. If you would like to write an op-ed about your feelings on COVID-19 or an article about how your major is adapting to the new normal, please email the Clerk at hcclerk@gmail.com.

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