Moving a lab course online during a pandemic

Screen capture of course video showing a distillation experiment. Credit: Penn State Chemical EngineeringAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — College courses across the country shifted to online teaching as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the world in March. For two Penn State chemical engineering faculty, they faced a unique challenge: How do you move a lab course online that requires special equipment and facilities for class experiments? 

Mechteld Hillsley, associate teaching professor of chemical engineering, and Gary Aurand, associate teaching professor of chemical engineering, faced this challenge as faculty for CHE 480W: Chemical Engineering Laboratory. The course objectives are to have student groups conduct experiments to gain hands-on experience with chemical engineering equipment and to learn planning, execution and data interpretation of experiments. The experiments are based on subject matter the students learned in prior courses.

Neither Hillsley nor Aurand had any online teaching experience prior to the spring 2020 semester, but they knew once the announcement was made of Penn State’s shift to remote learning, they would have to act quickly to solve the problem of students not being able to conduct lab experiments.

“We just jumped right in as soon as we found out,” Hillsley said. “We had the teaching assistants (TAs) and instructional assistants (IAs) rush to the lab to get video of portions of experiments that students really needed to see in action. They quickly put together a series of short videos in a narrow time frame so the students could at least see these experiments.”

An advantage, Aurand noted, was the time of the semester for the shift, given where they were as far as student lab work. 

“We were fortunate to be in a good spot in our schedule, as everyone had done at least two complete labs and there were two left,” Aurand said. “Therefore, we didn't have to worry about equity concerns given the students all had the same basic experience.”

Video showing distillation experiment. 

What helped with the transition was Aurand and Hillsley’s experience with Canvas. So, there was not much of a learning curve for them to use Canvas for posting the experiment videos, which the students used in lieu of performing the actual experiments. The data, provided to the students during Zoom sessions, was from experiments performed by other students during prior in-person labs, which allowed for a greater set of data with the normal variability among data sets. 

A solid understanding of Zoom features was also important because it has to replace the personal interaction IAs and TAs would offer students in a lab setting, according to Luke Nugent, a recent Schreyer Honors College graduate and IA in the course. 

“The biggest challenge in the shift to online classes was trying to help students work through issues and calculations for a lab procedure they had never actually run themselves,” Nugent said. “Screen sharing and annotations on Zoom were key in overcoming this obstacle. Key numbers and calculations could be quickly pointed out and annotated drawings aided in discussion of what happened in the experiment versus what should have happened.”

Video showing absorption experiment. 

Hillsley and Aurand also changed the way students prepared for the experiment. Since students needed to understand the experiment without actually doing it, they were required to make a brief presentation of the experimental plan and data analysis plan. This enabled students to understand what should be done in the lab and why. 

“Many students told me at the end of the semester that they learned more from this experimental plan presentation than from the previous quiz,” Hillsley said. 

One 480W student, Lauren Illig, a 2020 chemical engineering graduate, said that those running the course were invaluable in helping the students navigate challenges.

“One major challenge was fully grasping what was going on with the experiments so we could do our data processing and write out reports,” Illig said. “The 480W professors, TAs and IAs did a wonderful job keeping us in the loop about the changes that were being made due to issues on their end, which was encouraging as a student in the course.”

Illig added that she was impressed with the use of Zoom and Canvas technology in the newly online course. 

“It was great we could still work with our teammates on the lab,” Illig said. “I had a lot of positive experiences with my team in particular, therefore being able to continue to work with my team over Zoom and Canvas was a plus.”

While the move to online was a challenge, Hillsley and Aurand both said there were surprising benefits, such as more time in class for data analysis. 

“If we have to do this in the fall, I think we learned a lot about what works best,” Aurand said. “Plus, some of this remote stuff is good, like online office hours and the Zoom chat feature for questions and discussion, so there are things we need to figure out how to keep once this course goes back to normal.”


Last Updated May 21, 2020