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Teaching In-Person Labs in a Hybrid World

Last year, the BIT instructors had to adjust their labs to meet changing restrictions on in-person meetings, which meant virtual labs for most of the fall, and very modified, hybrid labs in the spring. Those modified labs will continue into this semester (Fall 2021), but rising vaccination rates on campus have allowed the labs to start transitioning back to more in-person activities.

Gloved hand writing on microfuge tubes in green rack.

Most labs are now back in person, but a few classes have taken more of a hybrid approach. For example, BIT 410/510 is having students in the lab every other week. “Students have six labs this semester, where they focus on key skills,” said Dr. Stefanie Chen, who is teaching a section of the course. In addition, Dr. Carly Sjogren, another instructor for the course, said that “labs have been shortened to two hours, so that students can come in shifts,” which will allow them to stay at 50% capacity. On the weeks that students aren’t in lab physically, they work with their TAs online to analyze provided sets of data. And to ensure that as many students have access to the class as possible, Dr. Carlos Goller is teaching a fully online version of the course. He and his TA, Dilán Rivera, have worked together to create “a series of SnapGene activities” for students to complete in lieu of the in-person labs, which allows the course to be completely virtual. An essential part of the BIT 410/510 experience is getting hands-on experience with common and crucial lab skills, but the past year has shown that taking the time for in-depth data analysis and providing flexibility is just as important in making the classes as fulfilling for students as possible.

The elective half-semester courses have also found ways to adapt their labs to a more COVID-friendly format. Because these classes are much smaller than the large core course (BIT 410/510), they can have in-person lab sessions more frequently, and many of them can have all of their students in the room at once. In BIT 100, taught this semester by Dr. Melissa Srougi and Dr. Arnab Sengupta, some labs are online and some are in person. When labs meet in person, students are spaced out as much as possible and wear masks in addition to typical lab PPE, such as lab coats. “We ensure that in-person time in class is spent on inquiry-based hands-on lab activities or other activities that benefit from being in person at the moment,” Dr. Srougi said, noting that some activities can’t be conducted in an online format. Students are expected to prioritize COVID safety, and are encouraged to avoid attending lab in person if they aren’t feeling well; many students have been able to join via Zoom, Dr. Srougi added. 

Plant Genetic Engineering (BIT 474/574), which is taught by Dr. Jacob Dums, has been able to have labs entirely in person this semester, and all enrolled students have been able to attend at the same time. This course features the standard two hour lecture and five hour lab components, but those timeblocks tend to be a mix of both lecture and lab. There are only seven students enrolled in the class, so they are all able to attend both sessions at the same time. “I would normally have them do more group work,” Dr. Dums said, “but I want them to be able to spread out.” Similarly, CRISPR Technologies (BIT 495/595), which will be taught by Dr. Arnab Sengupta and Dr. Melissa Srougi, will be able to have all students meet in lab at the same time. The lab portion of the class was entirely online last semester, but Dr. Sengupta hopes “to conduct full lab sessions as much as possible” once it starts during session two of the semester.

 “We ensure that in-person time in class is spent on inquiry-based hands-on lab activities or other activities that benefit from being in person at the moment,”

Dr. Srougi

Dr. Chen is also teaching Protein Interactions (BIT 473/573) this semester, and has adapted these labs to a hybrid format in which students have lab partners and one partner goes to lab each week. She was inspired by Dr. Chris Ashwell’s approach last semester: “[they] had the grad students in lab, and each one had an undergraduate partner on Zoom.” In Protein Interactions, the lab partners switch off coming in every other week, so each gets to do half of the labs, and their experiments are never neglected for too long. And for Virus Biotechnology (BIT 495/595), her upcoming course for session two, students will alternate between virtual and in-person lab sessions. On virtual days, students will watch videos of the lab experiments, and their TA will do tissue culture work to set up the experiments for them. On in-person days, students will be able to come in and complete the final steps of the experiments themselves. Dr Chen is also using pre-recorded lab videos in her Protein Interactions course, where they primarily serve as pre-labs to prepare students for what they will be doing when they arrive.

Besides the videos that Dr. Chen is using for her own classes, the BIT 410/510 instructors are also still using their videos from last year as well. These videos were made during the summer of 2020 so that students could see the lab steps before coming in person to complete their experiments. And they became the main portion of lab when classes were sent online early last fall. Now, they’re pre-labs for students to watch before they come into the lab. This helps them know what to expect when they show up, which can help lab flow more smoothly for everyone.

Though instructors are still having to work around some COVID-related restrictions, such as limits on the number of students in a space at a given time, many BIT courses have been able to transition their labs back to an in-person format. Despite the challenges still posed by COVID-19, the instructors’ and students’ continued flexibility and adaptability have enabled them to create a fulfilling lab experience.