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Virtual science

Laboratory instructors get creative to teach remotely

Teaching and Learning

By Kelly Foss

Instructors in the Faculty of Science are getting ready to teach laboratory courses online this fall.

Most undergraduate science labs can be taught online effectively, with some modifications.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

In May, Memorial University confirmed in-person, on-campus classes wouldn’t resume before January 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant new and returning students would be continuing remote learning in place of face-to-face classes in September.

“Labs are an integral part of the science curriculum,” said Dr. Travis Fridgen, acting dean of Science. “They help students learn to work collaboratively as well as independently, use scientific reasoning and laboratory techniques to define and solve problems and draw and evaluate conclusions based on quantitative evidence.”

He says most undergraduate science laboratories can be taught online effectively, with some modifications.

“Our instructors have been consulting with experts both within and outside of the university to make that happen and we feel some of these modifications will be valuable even after academic life returns to normal,” said Dr. Fridgen.

“Faculty and staff are working hard to ensure high-quality courses are offered to our students. This includes remote lab experiences that will strongly contribute to students’ understanding of course material and contribute to higher-level synthesis of information and experience into new knowledge.”

Physics and Physical Oceanography

Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography laboratory instructor Justin Pittman says the goal is to maintain the overall concept of labs – hypothesize, experiment, analyze and conclude – while still offering students the added insight and structure students would normally receive.”

In September, first-year students will follow a scripted experiment as they would have for in-person laboratory classes, experimenting either virtually with online simulation or with basic materials and their smartphone.

They will then submit their reports online. Instructors will also use automated quizzes for immediate feedback to students.

“We want to maintain our normal goals and methodology we have in the lab, but also the connection to in-person resources through live video chat and purposefully schedule those moments to connect with students,” said Mr. Pittman. “We believe it will lower the barriers to get help that moving to remote teaching can introduce.”

The live chats will give students the opportunity to ask questions or hear what other students are asking and get immediate responses from staff and teaching assistants moderating the conversation.

The department is also scheduling Ask Me Anything sessions where students can individually video chat with instructors.


Fall chemistry labs will draw from online and open sourced lab simulations and videos and simple at-home projects using common household materials.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

In the Department of Chemistry, a dedicated team of instructors has been diligently working to design a new virtual laboratory curriculum.

Acting head Dr. Christina Bottaro says the intent is to help reinforce the lecture material.

This fall laboratory classes will consist of exercises drawn from a variety of sources, such as online, open-sourced simulations; videos depicting experimental techniques and procedures; and simple at-home projects using common household materials.

“Since lab techniques cannot be practised in the current environment, the opportunity is being used to instead place a greater emphasis on data analysis in the weekly lab reports,” she said.

“Currently, a summer semester pilot project involves over 200 students across three different courses at the first-year level. In the upcoming fall semester, it is anticipated that over 1,000 students will participate in this virtual chemistry lab experience.”

Professors and laboratory instructors in upper level classes are also working with chemistry departments across the country to share resources, including interactive simulations and virtual laboratories to provide students rich laboratory experiences that will be augmented with an integrated program of hands-on experiences when we are able to return to campus.


Biology lab instructors are coming up with creative ways to illustrate various lab techniques.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The Department of Biology’s laboratory instructors spent the spring converting 18 first-year laboratory classes to remote learning labs.

Instructor Valerie Power says much of their time has been spent finding creative ways to illustrate various techniques, principles and topics that are important for students in Introductory Biology.

“This involves the use of online videos as well as ones we’ve recorded ourselves,” she said. “We have individually recorded ourselves doing experiments or certain lab techniques. We’ve also made use of pictures of specimens and equipment, as well as providing data for students to use in order to analyze, interpret and write up reports using the scientific method.”

She says while the work has been challenging, they feel they are doing the best they can to give students a virtual laboratory experience.

“We know it will never replace the practical learning that comes from being in an actual lab, but it does teach students key concepts they require for their scientific careers.”

Ocean Sciences

Recently, the Department of Ocean Sciences successfully shifted its flagship second-year field course, Introduction to Practical Ocean Sciences, from what is normally a two-week, in-person delivery to an entirely remote practical experience for students.

Ocean Sciences’ online field course will integrate live lectures, group discussions and demonstrations of oceanographic equipment.
Photo: Submitted

“The team of four faculty co-instructors are using a variety of digital communication and teaching technologies to recreate an enriching hands-on environment in a highly interactive/visual mode,” said Dr. Pat Gagnon, one of the co-instructors.

“The online version of the course integrates live lectures, group discussions and demonstrations of oceanographic equipment use, which, together with online guided exercises, quizzes and student project presentations, provides comprehensive training on how to measure the planet’s oceans.”

Earth Sciences

In the Department of Earth Sciences, instructor Amanda Langille has been creating an image bank of mineral, rock and fossil samples.

A photo of a garnet from a new Earth Sciences image bank of mineral, rock and fossil samples.
Photo: Submitted

“While it can’t replace handling real samples, I am doing my best to capture their diagnostic properties,” she said. “This will be a valuable resource in my courses moving forward as it will offer extra study material for students at home, making the course more accommodating for everyone.”

She’s also making a series of short videos demonstrating laboratory experiments and instruments. Students can make and record observations when watching the experimental videos and have access to more demonstration videos should they be required to use tools when identifying samples or recording orientations using a compass-clinometer in the future.

Dr. Penny Morrill says in her Environmental Geology laboratory class, students typically learn how to use different hand-held data collection instruments and how to sample for water quality measurements before testing their knowledge in the field. Back in the laboratory, they analyze and process the data and create a report on their findings for the end of the term.

This year, students will learn how to use the equipment and watch water sampling being done through instructional videos. However, instead of creating a report based on those findings, students will be asked to process 10 years’ worth of data.

“They’ll be looking not only at spatial trends, but also temporal trends – something we have never done before,” said Dr. Morrill.


In-person biochemistry labs will be offered to students later in their program.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Since students aren’t able to take courses from the Department of Biochemistry until their second year, the unit decided to readjust its course offerings.

“Students will be able to front-load their lecture courses in the fall and do the full lab courses later in their program,” said Dr. Mark Berry, department head.

Computer Science

Computer Science will be conducting labs remotely with Guacamole, a technological innovation created by their system staff, says Dr. Yuanzhu Chen, department head.

Previously, computing laboratory tasks were conducted in laboratories equipped with LabNet computers.

With Guacamole, instructors and students will be able to access LabNet computers anywhere in the world through a browser.

Users will be assigned a dedicated machine on campus, including all hardware and software resources.


In the Department of Psychology’s Behavioural Neuroscience program, laboratory co-ordinator Dr. Kelley Bromley-Brits says they are using interactive 3D models that allow each student to dissect and annotate the human brain in a way that would be cost prohibitive in a hands-on environment.

“To teach electrophysiology, we’re using computer simulators that students can manipulate in real time to see how changes in ion concentrations affect electrical conductance in the neuron,” she said.

“In higher level experimental labs, we’re providing students with scientific data sets, images and videos and leveraging free software used by scientists around the world to teach them how to analyze the data and extract scientific meaning on their own computers.”

She says she feels the silver lining of having to transition to remote delivery is that the department is developing resources that will continue to enhance its laboratory offerings long after the pandemic is over.

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