At-home Biology Labs in Times of Pandemic
To allow my students to do their biology labs at a distance, I prepared for them some small kits that they can get at the Cégep in exchange for a refundable deposit. I have completely revised the labs that I usually do during my in-person courses to create new ones that allow the students to acquire the same analysis competencies, in a different context. The students consider those labs to be as engaging as they are formative, even more than the labs that they normally do in class. I am also delighted by the results!
Why do labs at home?
In the winter of 2021, I am teaching the General Biology II, the second biology class of the Natural Sciences (for continuing education) program. This course includes 3 hours of lab time every week.
In the middle of a pandemic, I did not want to force my students to come to the college in person for the labs. Some might have health issues that make them vulnerable, were they to catch COVID-19, others might live with at-risk people. I found it more inclusive to make it so that students could do their labs at home.
Home lab science kits
The main challenge was to design labs that could be done at home with inexpensive and light materials. I wanted the materials necessary for the whole semester to fit in a small resealable plastic bag.
The students can either come get their kit at the counter of the continuing education secretariat, or, if they are unable to come to the college, receive it by mail. Since the material is light and small, the shipping costs are reasonable.
[Légende: The kits I prepared for my students.]
The students that were able to come to the counter had to leave a $10 deposit in exchange for the materials. This way, we will be able to recuperate the syringes and the test tubes and reuse them. A cost-saving and eco-friendly option!
Examples of labs that the students did
One of the labs that I have my students do is about enzymes. They investigated the effects of temperature on the enzyme lactase (using over the counter lactase tablets) which was added to milk. The lactase breaks down lactose to galactose and glucose, which was measured using glucose strips. The students used strips to test the glucose. The collected data was analyzed statistically on Excel. For this lab, the students had to use milk they had at home (or go buy some if they did not have any; they had been informed ahead of time).
This lab is relevant to everyday life situations: people who are lactose-intolerant must think about the way to take their medication in order not to expose them to temperatures that would affect their effectiveness. In person, the labs that the students did were generally less “connected” to everyday life, to get as much as we could from the state-of-the-art material that we have at our disposal on campus.
[Légende: A student photographed the strips she used to test the glucose during the lab on the degradation of lactose by lactase.]
For another lab, the students needed to use a potato from their pantry to study osmosis, in an activity that allowed them to make links with real osmotic dehydration food-preservation techniques.
What do at-home labs look like?
At the beginning of the virtual lab time, each week, I meet the students in a large group in a video conference to give them the necessary theoretical explanations to understand the experiment they have to carry out and discuss the protocol of the lab. This takes about 1 hour.
Preparation in teams and procedures
Then, the students meet in teams of 4 or 5. The teams are the same throughout the semester, which allows the students to get to know one another and learn to work together.
The first task they have to do as a team every week is to fill out a sheet (an online Word document) about the lab they will do. They have to write, among others:
their method to test their hypothesis,
the statistical tests to use,
Then, they carry out, each in their own home, but all at the same time, the procedures necessary for the lab. If one of them encounters a difficulty, they can ask their teammates for help.
In person, on campus, the labs are usually done in teams of two. Sometimes, one of the two takes control and the other ends up being a spectator. At home, everyone must be active. I find that it encourages everyone’s learning.
For my part, during the synchronous virtual sessions, I move from team to team, spending about 10 minutes with each team in turn, to answer the questions of the students, interrogate them about their method and validate that they are on the right track. The team leader (who changes every week) can film themself carrying out the procedures, if the students want to make sure they are doing everything properly.
It is also possible for students to call me at any time during an online class if they are in need of urgent help so that I join their team immediately, but that is almost unheard of. In general, the students are very autonomous.
I love those small opportunities to chat with my students. This allows me to learn to know them, which I do not really have a chance to do during theoretical lectures.
When they are done with the procedures, all the students enter their data into a common Excel file shared online.
Come back as a large group to prepare the analysis
The students all come back to the video conference to discuss the results collected in the Excel file and detect the tendencies in the data obtained.
Analysis and conclusion in teams
The students then go back in teams to analyze the data (while explaining their choice of analytical method) and to write a conclusion. This step takes them about 30 minutes.
During the lab, I ask the students to take a picture of something that they like, and of something they dislike. After the laboratory, they have to write an entry in their journal on Moodle (“Journal module”). I ask them to reflect on the activity: what they thought of it, what they got from it. They can attach their pictures. The journal is not evaluated summatively, but the students complete it and the content is fascinating and very useful for me.
Here are a few excerpts from some students’ journals:
“I honestly felt like a real scientist while doing the lab. Using all the tubes and measuring the exact quantities was very fun. It’s really the little things that I missed about taking these classes during this pandemic. I would honestly do something like this again. I also felt happy that the notions Ilearned about enzymes came true during the lab. ”
“I liked that the explanations were clear.”
“I would definitely recommend this lab to my friends.”
Re-thinking my labs
At first sight, the lab activities associated with science and technology courses are not easy to carry out at home. Considerable thought and planification are necessary to find the right idea for activities that the students can carry out at home with small and inexpensive materials that we can lend them.
The preparation of the lab activity about enzymes, alone, required a good 10 hours. The lab with the potato, 5 hours. In this context, I can only encourage interested teachers to embark on the journey as a team: work with your colleagues to divide the load.
Despite all the work that they required, I am very satisfied with my labs. I am proud to be able to offer my students formative and inclusive activities in these difficult times.