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How do you create a hands-on laboratory class in an online world?

In the era of COVID-19, a team of chemical engineering educators rethink a capstone lab class for seniors.
“Maybe a lab should not be so much about touching as thinking.” | Adobe Stock/Bruno R.B S. and konstruktor1980

Given only the course name, Chemical Engineering Laboratory A (ChemE 185A), one might be prone to notions of an introductory lab course for first-year undergrads.

In fact, the course is a capstone lab class for seniors, and in winter quarter 2021, the three instructors who tag-team to teach ChemE 185A found themselves with a fundamentally different challenge than any they’d faced before. In the age of COVID-19, how does one conduct such a formative, normally hands-on laboratory class in the online world and yet give it the full weight deserving of a senior-level course?

“The answer is,” says Lisa Hwang, “you rethink the meaning of what a laboratory class is.” Hwang, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering, shared the teaching duties of ChemE 185A with colleagues assistant professor Monther Abu-Remaileh and research engineer Alex Engel this past quarter.

Asked to reimagine ChemE 185A for the online world, the teachers asked themselves that fundamental question. On the one hand, should a lab be designed to give students real hands-on experience operating the various tools chemical engineers have at their disposal — gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, etc.? That mission, taken alone, would be very challenging if not impossible to carry over to the online world. But what if you flip the equation and imagine that what is most important about a lab is not physical, but mental?

“That is, maybe a lab should not be so much about touching as thinking,” says Abu-Remaileh, of the fundamental approach to the lab that proved key to being able to declare ChemE 185A a success for the students and instructors alike.

A helpful evolution

This shift in philosophy, actually set about during a course redesign a few years back, before the pandemic, freed the instructors to frame their course as a series of thought experiments. In their model, teams of seniors, reading course materials and watching pre-recorded videos on their own time — “asynchronously” — would then gather with their lab mates via Zoom in real time — “synchronously” — to collaboratively design experiments. The actual experiments — the normally hands-on aspect of any traditional lab class — were then carried out by graduate-level teaching assistants Sarah Blair, Katarina Guzman and Zach Zajo.

What rose to the fore in this model was an emphasis not on operating machinery, but on understanding what data a given tool can provide that is useful in proving or disproving a hypothesis — critical thinking versus physical force.

“In the end, that’s what is really most important about a lab and to the future prospects of the students,” says Engel, whose responsibilities were to help the students develop the skills to write about what they had done and learned. That emphasis on writing is a feature of the Stanford undergraduate education, with its “writing in the major” degree requirement, intended to graduate well-rounded students with complementary technical and communication skills.

Paying it forward

Beyond the emphasis on critical thinking, a key development arising out of ChemE 185A’s evolution, say the instructors, was the unexpected blossoming of a tightly knit social network, aided by the Slack instant messaging platform, on which the students relied to collaborate, get help when needed and share ideas. With students, faculty and teaching assistants spread across the globe, one as far away as Greece, the videoconferencing and instant messaging tools of the modern age proved crucial to building that community and, ultimately, a successful quarter.

“The other key partners in this course have been the students,” the instructors wrote in a departmental newsletter, “all Zooming in and putting in fantastic effort to engage, think and design — all with grace and humor.”

Reminded that one day the pandemic will have dissipated and in-person classes will resume and this effort might be for naught, the instructors seemed reluctant to let go of the lessons their experiment in online experimentation has yielded. Asked what learnings they can bring forward in the return to hands-on, in-person labs, all agreed that the social support aspects that grew out of the necessity of the moment are something that will integrate nicely into the traditional model and, in the end, bring deeper meaning to Chemical Engineering Laboratory A.

“The social aspect came as a bit of a surprise,” says Hwang. “It gave students an easy avenue to connect with each other, with us, and a fun outlet to feel part of the chemical engineering community.”