A SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) professor's response to the directive to transition her lab class to distance education in March 2020 has been published in the Journal of Chemical Education.
"The move to distance learning was particularly difficult for those of us who teach courses requiring hands-on experiences, such as laboratories, which traditionally meet in specially designed spaces and use sensitive equipment and chemicals," said Jaime Mirowsky, assistant professor of chemistry and one of the core faculty members representing the Program of Environmental Health. "We needed to reinvent our entire approach in a way that maintained more than the learning outcomes. We also needed to think about the scientific integrity and the safety of our students and everyone in their environments."
Mirowsky teaches a 300-level Environmental Sampling Methods lecture/laboratory course. When she was directed to transition to distance learning, the primary focus of the course became the laboratory.
"To do this, I revised my three remaining laboratory exercises - water quality, soil quality, environmental microbes - and created two new ones: toxicology and ultraviolet radiation. For the students to complete the experiments, I shipped low-cost equipment and supplies to them; this shipment included Petri plates and sampling swabs, sterile water, a pH meter and associated calibration powders, a total dissolved solids meter, clay and sand samples, conical tubes, sampling baggies, cyanotype printing paper, and lettuce seeds."
Mirowsky justified this shift toward being primarily laboratory-focused by requiring all the experiments to become inquiry-based, which required the students to generate and test hypotheses, provide justifications for their hypotheses, design their experiments (including proper controls, when appropriate), analyze their results, and discuss their findings as it relates to the literature.
"To keep a sense of community within the class, I used discussion boards," Mirowsky said. "To make sure students were conducting their work safely, each project required preapproval, and safety questions were imbedded in the weekly quizzes and highlighted in the laboratory write-ups. The switch to inquiry-based work increased the rigor of the experiments and kept the students engaged by allowing them to design their own projects."
Although the experience was not completely positive - students expressed remorse at the lack of interaction and the inability to present their findings to each other - overall, Mirowsky is pleased with the results.
"Inquiry-based environmental sampling and analysis laboratory experiments have been proven successful in both keeping the students engaged and increasing their understanding of the connection between science and everyday life," said Mirowsky. "I found similar results during our shift online in this course at ESF, as many students used their knowledge of their environment, for example limestone quarries and waterfalls, to guide their projects based on their own personal observations and interests. It should be noted, though, that there is a heavy emphasis on how to properly conduct an environmental sampling study in the first half of the course, and the students worked in groups to conduct inquiry-based projects for the midterm, so I felt confident that they could this at home with minimal support. Further, the students in my course were mostly seniors, so having them conduct their own inquiry-based experiments seemed completely appropriate for the Spring 2020 scenario."
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