Figure 1. The author is ready to teach a chemistry lab class, wearing a facemask.

Danville Area Community College in Danville, Illinois performed a quick shift to online learning in mid-March, like so many other institutions around the country. Our spring break began for students a week early, and faculty used that week for extra training and preparation, just in case we might need to move to eLearning after the extended spring break.

In hindsight, it is no surprise that we did not resume regular in-person instruction on March 30, or at any point for the remainder of the semester. My colleague and I filmed some of our lab experiments during the extended spring break, and we were able to piece together a combination of our own videos, online videos, and simulations to meet the learning outcomes for our lab classes for the remainder of the spring semester.

The goal of the spring semester became about survival — just make it to the end of the semester in one piece. But this wasn’t a great long-term strategy. Chemistry lab classes are meant to be hands-on experiences for students. Take a look at guidelines established by ACS (for Middle and High School as well as Two-Year College), or various accrediting bodies, and it’s clear that students are expected to actively participate in their lab classes. Sure, students can learn something about an experiment by watching you or me doing it, but the experience is more valuable when they can do the experiment themselves.

Figure 2. Students are reminded of important new rules and procedures to follow while in the chemistry lab.

Planning for a new lab experience

As it became clear that COVID-19 was going to be around for a while, our institution developed a plan to safely allow students back on campus for these critical hands-on experiences. I was scheduled to teach our intro chemistry course during the summer session, and I was one of the few instructors given permission to meet on campus.

While our chemistry lab has enough lab bench space for 20+ students, the college decided to limit all lab classes to a maximum of 10 students. The course was set up in hybrid format, with students completing all of the regular coursework online, and then coming to campus twice a week for in-person labs. When we returned to campus on June 9, it had been almost three months since I had last interacted face-to-face with any of my students.

Although we were finally back on campus, things looked a lot different than they had several months earlier. The only available entrance to our building was through a health checkpoint set up in the parking lot. Everyone arriving on campus had to verify that they were not experiencing any COVID symptoms and had not been exposed to anyone known to have COVID. Anyone with a temperature above 100.4 °F would be denied building access. If you passed the health screening, you received a sticker to wear for that day; masks were required at all times in all classrooms and labs.

We’ve introduced several additional measures within the chemistry lab to maintain appropriate social distancing. For example, I’ve marked which lab stations students were allowed to use. In most cases, there are only two students present at a lab bench (out of a capacity of six), and they’re staggered across the bench from each other. The room is stocked with several bottles of disinfectant, and students are expected to thoroughly clean their own work area and wash their hands at the beginning and end of each lab period. Students traditionally work on their lab activities in teams of two or three.

Figure 3. Lab benches are stocked with cleaning supplies, and available workspaces are marked with a green “X” in order to encourage social distancing.

I have tried to preserve this group aspect as much as possible, while also promoting social distancing. For example, instead of having a team perform two trials of an experiment, I might have each student do their own trial and then share data with the other person at their table. Or students can divide up the work for an experiment, with one person collecting supplies and recording initial mass/volume information, and the other mixing the reactants together.

Sometimes the lab setup ends up in the middle of the table, with the two lab partners each watching the results from opposite ends. I’ve encouraged the use of group text messages, Google Docs, and other collaboration tools for groups to work through their data together, without necessarily being in the same room. There’s definitely a certain amount of creativity that goes into our experiments now.

Succeeding at safety

Let’s be honest: in the middle of the summer, the combination of long pants, safety goggles, and masks is not the most comfortable situation. In fact, I worried that students would be reluctant to wear their masks.

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of compliance I observed throughout the course. I think my students understood that in June/July, it was still very rare to have any options for face-to-face classes, and the extra safety measures were the price we all had to pay for this opportunity.

As the summer session ended and the fall semester approached, the college increased the number of on-campus offerings for students. While only a limited number of courses are offered in the summer, we’re back to something resembling our usual offering of classes now. Many classes are still operating fully online, but many others (especially in our division of Math, Science and Health Professions) are following the hybrid formats we piloted in the summer, or meeting fully on-campus again.

The summer safety policies have become more formally structured. Our college has a COVID Action Response Team, whose members meet regularly to re-evaluate the policies and how they’re being communicated to faculty, staff, and students. All of the safety policies and other current COVID updates are posted online for anyone to access at any time.

With change comes challenges

It hasn’t all been easy. Limiting labs to only 10 students has increased the number of lab sections I’m running each week. Students are mostly still willing to follow the extra safety rules, but I’m having to give more frequent reminders about keeping masks over the mouth and nose. While we have clear guidelines about social distancing on campus, our students and employees don’t live in a bubble. There are confirmed COVID cases in our region, and students are reporting exposure to coworkers or family members who have tested positive with increased frequency. I’ve had to be more flexible with my attendance policies, since obviously students can’t attend class or lab if they need to quarantine or isolate.

At the same time, students have expressed gratitude at having the option to attend lab in person. They’re spending a lot of time in front of screens, and I’ve had several students tell me their time in lab seems to fly by, and that they look forward to having that tangible experience every week.

AACT resources to support teachers

If you’re still operating in an online learning format now, there are many resources available to help you build a repository of quality lab experiences for your students. Several recent AACT webinars have focused on virtual labs, such as Building Virtual Labs and Activities with Formative, as well as and simulations like Using ChemCollective and the Online Learning Initiative to Simulate Laboratory Experiments. The Multimedia page of the AACT website contains a variety of animations, simulations, and videos that can be incorporated into either a classroom or virtual setting, and there are some great Facebook groups out there for chemistry teachers, with really generous contributors.

Additionally, in the November issue of Chemistry Solutions, several teachers share their great ideas, including:

  • Learn about Flipgrid, Gizmos and Collisions, three valuable technology platforms that were essential for one teacher as she navigated remote learning in the spring of 2020.
  • Anne Schmidt shares about the main ingredients that helped her successfully shift an accelerated summer chemistry class from in-person to virtual.
  • Get some creative inspiration from the story of an experienced homeschool chemistry teacher and her suggestions for creatively conducting hands-on experiences in a home setting.
  • Green chemistry continues to be an important consideration for science teachers. One author shares about a guided-inquiry lab, in which students design biomimetic preen oil from waste cooking oil.
  • Hear about the NSF-funded project, Get the Facts Out, that’s designed to give chemistry educators the tools to explain and debunk common misconceptions about careers in STEM teaching, and encourage students to pursue it as a career.
  • Finally, meet Jonté Lee, and read about his nontraditional path to becoming a chemistry teacher. You will be inspired by his enthusiasm for teaching, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when he transformed his home kitchen into a chemistry lab.

This pandemic is going to influence the way we teach through the rest of this school year, and perhaps beyond that. I count myself lucky that I get to see my students at least once each week. I know many institutions don’t have that option right now, and it’s uncertain how long this model will last for us. If cases increase locally, we may shift back to online learning.

In the meantime, I’ll take what I can get, and I hope my students will continue to see the value in learning through hands-on experiments. Someday this will all be a memory, and we’ll look back on those crazy months of 2020 as a time that we all did the best we could to support our students in their personal and professional growth.

Amy Nicely

Amy Nicely
SOCED Representative