U of R professors come up with creative workarounds to give students virtual lab experience
Instructors create videos, put together lab kits to give students hands-on learning
Janis Dale says her feet are still frozen from digging a snow pit as part of a geology lab video she made for her students, but that it's worth it to help the students.
Dale is a University of Regina professor who teaches environmental geology. Since it's a very hands on topic, she wanted to design a lab that would make the learning more concrete.
"You want to provide a really good hands-on experience for our students so they really can learn this material in the best possible way," Dale said.
Students who have been forced to take classes online due to the pandemic are missing out, so professors and lab instructors at the U of R are finding different ways to provide hands-on learning.
Geology lab instructor Monica Cliveti said she got the idea to make videos from her children. The staff decided to make kits for students who weren't able to attend field trips.
"We filmed with drones and things like that just to give them an idea of how the area looks like and what they should be doing out there," she said.
Joanne Downing, who took Geology 102 last semester, was glad there was some interactivity.
"It was great to have the rocks to be able to look at and and do the tests with them and to see the reactions of doing the tests," she said.
Teaching physics with flare
Meanwhile, two U of R physics lab instructors enabled their students to conduct some labs remotely through a British Columbia university, Kwantlen University. The two institutions have formed a partnership to help students have a more hands-on experience.
Kwantlen has a five-storey high glass container that lets students control equipment from their home computer.
On the second floor at Kwantlen, the physics department has their equipment set up. Right next to the glass container are tables, where students are doing their homework.
U of R physics lab instructor Stamatios Katsaganis said the students can do experiments and collect data themselves.
"They don't have their hands on it, but they're controlling it through the internet. I think it's one of the best solutions," said Katsaganis.
Arianna Neumann, who is in her first year at the U of R studying music and physics, said its good that doing labs virtually means the data can be instantly relayed in a chart, but that she is losing valuable experience figuring out how to take that data in person.
Positive side of online learning
Having students work from home has some positives.
For example, students were able to share their own rock collections they had acquired over the years. To help compensate for the lack of interaction, professors set up a session each week where students could ask questions.
"I think when you're doing it from home on your own, it's pretty quick to kind of lose track of where you might be or what you should be doing or what you're responsible for, especially when you're a first-year student," said Dale.
Joyce McBeth, an assistant professor in the geology department, said having resources online means that the course material can be adjusted any time.
"We're using an open textbook, a workbook that I prepared in my previous appointment at the University of Saskatchewan, and then also an open lab manual that we're working on as we go," she said.
Another benefit of having the lab manual online is that it has a longer shelf life.
"If it's of interest to the rest of the geology community, they can also make use of that for their courses, too," she said.
McBeth also noted that having free online textbooks help students save money.
"It's really nice to have been able to bring that to our students in a time when they may be more cash strapped than they normally are."
Also, when geology students performed their labs virtually, lab instructor and geology grad student Dan Ferguson was also available. Holding sessions where all the students and lab instructors at the same time was an attempt to help students feel like they were in a real classroom.
The physics lab instructors also put some pizzazz into creating virtual labs by asking students to design them.
Some of the videos produced for the labs were an ode to the television fictional character Sheldon Cooper, a physicist on The Big Bang Theory, and his YouTube Channel show "Fun with Flags." The videos also had a throwback to science films from the 1950s — something the students enjoyed.
Students found the videos helped them grasp physics concepts.
"We got a background explanation and extra explanation on the lab instead of just having to read it over ourselves. It was very helpful," said Sarah Shoobert, a second-year physics student.
Her classmate Dhruval Shah agreed.
"Rather than just uploading the lab manual and just reading through it, I think it's more helpful to see the videos," said Shah.
Lab instructor Shaun Szymanski said all the videos will be used for future labs.
Creating the videos was sometimes a challenge.
One of the experiments included an incline track where students could control the angle of inclination. They would let a small car slide down the track and the software would give them timing information and distance travelled.
The University of Regina plans on creating its own remotely controlled experiments, which can be offered to students locally, nationally or internationally.
Instructors and students still miss in-person classes
Ferguson noted there were some challenges in performing geology labs virtually. It greatly limited the kind and number of samples they could study. Normally students would study between 20 and 30 different minerals. Online, they were limited to only five.
"I think one of the main components that's often missing from discussing this with my peers is just being able to look to your side and talk to one of your classmates, especially in a zoom. It can sometimes feel like you're announcing your question to everyone," fourth-year student Brianne MacNab said.
Overall, students are adjusting to the virtual learning platform.
Cliveti noticed that students are doing a better job organizing to help each other out. Dale acknowledged the staff's hard work making these labs a reality.
"It really has been a huge effort on everyone's part to try to put these classes together and make it a pleasant experience, because geology is fun," said Dale.