Include lab content refreshers when fall classes resume

Eva Strelitz-Block

Due to COVID-19 and the shift to remote learning, most hands-on lab experience in science courses has been lost. Since the spring semester of 2020, many UT biology labs have been conducted completely online and many chemistry labs have been hybrid.

While lecture content can easily be moved online with small adjustments and modifications to teaching styles, many lab skills simply can’t translate. 

In order to make up for the prolonged absence of direct lab instruction and ensure students are prepared for the demands of upper division science courses, the College of Natural Sciences should offer an in-person pre-semester workshop before in-person labs, which are scheduled to resume in the fall.

The goal of these workshops would be two-fold. First, and most obviously, these workshops would reteach the basic lab skills that many students have only ever seen performed via video or online simulation. 

Biochemistry senior MiMi Ha’s experience demonstrates why these skill-based workshops are necessary. 

“In the class I took last year, we went through a lot of lab experiments just to understand the machines you use in a lab,” Ha said. “But because that was in the pandemic, the learning was online. I don’t think I learned that information as well, so I feel that in the class I am taking right now.”

Like other course content, class expectations for lab skills accrue sequentially. In upper level lab-based classes, lab skills are understood as prior knowledge. If students’ only exposure to these skills is online, they may not be able to perform them in the in-person setting. 

While it is possible that some professors might take the time to reteach these basic skills, this would negatively impact the pacing of the course. Moreover, this ad hoc approach is unlikely to give all the students access to this critical learning. 

Second, lab skills boot camps would provide students with the critical opportunity to become familiar with the lab environment and build meaningful relationships with their professors. There is more to the lab experience than just physical skills, including networking with other students and inspiration for independent research projects. Students have missed out on even more than they recognize.

“The lab is your entrance into making professional science relationships,” chemistry professor Cynthia LaBrake said. “Being comfortable in that space and understanding how people move in that space is an entry level into a lifetime of work.”

The College of Natural Sciences already has a system in place to set up freshmen for success. Intro level biology “boot camps” are offered before school starts. These short sessions expose students to core course content and clarify course expectations. These boot camps help students feel comfortable and less nervous going into the semester. 

LaBrake was a part of the early iterations of these bootcamps and taught general chemistry content. She found that students really loved these experiences. 

There is no reason that this model cannot be replicated to support lab coursework for current students whose learning has been adversely impacted by the pandemic. The College of Natural Sciences should help students get back on track with their sciences coursework. 

Bootcamps will ensure students do not start the semester feeling behind and overwhelmed. 

“One week of one semester in your college career shouldn’t make or break you,” LaBrake said. “We should have enough resources that we can figure stuff out.”

UT is looking for tangible ways to help students prepare for the “return to normal,” and boot camps can address both missed content as well as missed connections. 

Strelitz-Block is a plan II and anthropology sophomore from Austin, Texas.