Recently the CITL has hosted a series of “Coffee Talk” events for instructors—informal opportunities for instructors to gather and discuss challenges they share, as well as solutions or strategies they’ve tried in their classes. This blog post describes ideas that arose in a Coffee Talk focused on teaching STEM labs online.
Format, schedule, and logistics
- While most instructors think of lab courses as requiring face-to-face time, several people in the Coffee Talk discussed ways they have devised to teach their lab courses online, using common household items, lab kits available from lab supply companies, or videos available online. For videos, the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) provides access to peer reviewed scientific video journals.
- Scheduling labs within the constraints of the fall semester is another factor to be considered: for labs that will include any face-to-face sessions, those must be scheduled in the first 13 weeks of the semester. Some instructors will schedule only a few face-to-face labs, spread out over the first 13 weeks, with intervening weeks devoted to online work.
- Scheduling labs face-to-face will also require that lab equipment and specimens be cleaned between lab sessions, and labs will need to be set up so that students can maintain social distancing. These factors also support the idea of scheduling fewer face-to-face labs.
- Since many lab courses require students to work in groups, particularly while conducting the experiment and collecting data, a number of issues surrounding group work were discussed. Faculty pointed to the importance of learning how to collaborate with others in a scientific setting, but this will be more challenging if students are working on labs asynchronously from remote locations. Some instructors suggested establishing online groups based on the students’ time zones. They also encouraged designing assignments that ask students to work in groups – perhaps to share data sets or compare and contrast different data.
- One instructor indicated that she might allow her students to choose whether they want to work individually on the labs, or work in a group. Students are often concerned about how the work of a lab is divided among the members of a group, so the option of working individually might mitigate that concern.
- Instructors reported online whiteboards being a good space for student group work – IU has access to Google Jamboard and Zoom Whiteboard.
- In the move to online teaching, one critical challenge for instructors, particularly those teaching lab courses, is communication to and from students. In a face-to-face setting, students see their AIs or undergraduate teaching assistants frequently, and come to see those individuals as the first point of contact for questions about lab instructions or methodology, data analysis, and “housekeeping” details. Since students may not “see” their AIs or UTAs as frequently in an online lab course, instructors need to develop clear, consistent channels for communicating with students.
- A number of possible strategies for clear communication were mentioned, including the landing page in Canvas and Canvas announcements. Piazza and the Canvas discussion board were helpful in answering student questions.
Roles and responsibilities for AIs and undergraduate teaching assistants
- Related to the need to establish clear lines of communication is the roles and responsibilities of AIs and UTAs. AIs might be assigned to offer office hours, teach and supervise face-to-face lab sessions, monitor online discussions, or help grading assigned work. Some AIs might be interested in helping to revise certain labs, to update them or adapt them to the online environment.
- Regardless of what AIs are assigned to do, it is important for instructors to communicate clearly with them about expectations for their work. It might be helpful for instructors to coach AIs about their responsibilities while trying to avoid putting additional stress on them.
- In assessing students’ work in an online lab course, it is important to recognize a tension between providing students with frequent feedback on their understanding of course content, and avoiding overwhelming students with lots of assignments.
- Among the possible strategies instructors can use to assess students’ learning in lab courses are: the Quizzes tool in Canvas, Canvas Quick Check, worksheets, lab notebooks, and lab reports. For online labs, instructors may want to consider more nontraditional ways of documenting students’ work, such as having students submit photos of their labs done at home.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re looking for more resources, visit our resource handout to see what other things were recommended during this discussion.
We also invite you to join upcoming STEM reading groups: STEM Reads (online book group): The Online Teaching Survival Guide: June 17th at 1 – 2 PM and STEM Reads (online book group): Small Teaching Online: Attend as your schedule permits: July 9th, July 16th, July 23rd, all 1:30 – 2:30 PM. Also keep an eye on our events page for upcoming webinars about transitioning your STEM lab online.
This blog post is a collaboration of Lisa Kurz, Leslie Drane, and Madeleine Gonin.