How making labs accessible, relatable increases student engagement

AAAS: Lessons Learned During COVID-19
Publication Date: October 15, 2021
by Jennifer Zovar, Whatcom Community College & Lev Horodyskyj, Science Voices/University of the Virgin Islands

Summary: What did we learn after moving labs online during the pandemic? Dr. Zovar and Dr. Horodyskyj both moved their archaeology and physics labs (respectively) online and developed strategies to ensure students felt engaged and could relate the virtual lab courses to their lived experiences. In transitioning back to in-person labs, Drs. Zovar and Horodyskyj outline tips and strategies for creating engaging and accessible STEM lab courses.

Making STEM Lab Experiences More Accessible for Students Learning Virtually

An integral part of Dr. Zovar’s Archaeology class had always been a course-based undergraduate research project that allowed students to see how material objects can be used to understand culture at different times and places. This was normally a very hands-on and interactive project, drawing on analysis of collections in the lab or on analysis of landfill garbage, recycling, or litter, as students work through the process of hypothesis formation, data collection, and analysis. With the move online, students took advantage of the environment around them to complete the research project by:

*going to cemeteries to take notes about stylistic changes in different times and places,
*observing trash on trails using photos as a tool for virtual information collection, and
*using online museum databases to analyze objects (e.g., Museum of Anthropology at UBC)

While some students struggled with working online, most appreciated the flexibility. Overall, the takeaway from this lab is to be flexible about HOW you are reaching your learning goals, and experiment with virtual tools to achieve the same effects.

"Covid has really affected so many lives in pretty horrific ways, and has also forced assignments like this to be done differently than it originally would have been done… But I will say that because of Covid, the way that we now had to do it was very beneficial for me… I liked that we had much more free rein in the options we had in how we depicted our final research." -Student

A broad takeaway from moving archaeological research online is a simple reminder that different students will want to engage with the materials in different ways. As we reenter into the physical lab space, Dr. Zovar would like to maintain – and even expand – this sort of freedom by keeping the focus on the learning objectives and adding more flexibility about how students get there. In this example, students may investigate research questions about physical or virtual data sets. In addition, they may continue to present the results of their research in a variety of different ways, including academic posters, podcasts, webpages, infographics, Google Earth presentations, etc.

Relating STEM Labs to Students’ Lived Experiences

The heart of science lies in observing your environment and building understanding from those observations. Digital lab facsimiles teach students how to interact with cartoons and other virtual models which may not necessarily connect with lived, physical experience.

At the beginning of each new physics unit, Dr. Horodyskyj had students write an observation journal that focused on their lived experiences. Over time, students worked to improve these observation journals to strip out assumptions and other people’s ideas about how the world works and focus purely on what they were experiencing through all their senses. The students then used these lived experiences in labs to conduct controlled versions of their field observations to deepen understanding, find patterns, and derive the descriptive mathematics.

"I felt that it took a fairly abstract and tedious concept, intro physics and mechanics, and connected it to their everyday experience and helped them see that the math isn’t reality … it’s just a helpful descriptor of their reality that allows them to extend their experiences to places they can’t go." -Dr. Horodyskyj

Takeaways from Dr. Horodyskyj are as follows:

1. Start from experience and build to understanding. For example, start with observation journals and follow up with labs that further explore observations as well as computer modeling that extends patterns identified in labs to new settings.
2. Begin observation journals, labs, and modeling without constraints, and add constraints (SI units, uncertainty, methodology, etc.) as they become necessary. Although this results in chaotic early labs, it demonstrates to students the necessity of proper procedure and allows you to introduce formal lab skills a few at a time, rather than front-loading on the first day of lab.
3. Interlace labs with introductory coding and simple modeling. It will help students develop coding skills that are becoming a requirement for a successful career in science.

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