By Erica Quinones
The return of in-person learning sees the return of hands-on labs for science students across campus as they move from their backyards and kitchens to the fields and laboratories of Washington College.
When classes transitioned to an online format in the spring of 2020, so too did labs that were a part of many science courses.
According to Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Biology Dr. Jennie Rinehimer and Associate Professor of Environmental Science & Studies and Biology and Chair of Environmental Science & Studies Dr. Robin Van Meter, labs are where students apply what they learn in lecture to life, developing their hands-on skills and critical thinking to solve problems and develop skills for the workforce.
“Our classes would be fundamentally different if we were not teaching labs,” Dr. Van Meter said.
While professors explored ways to provide a similar lab experience to their students, their students dove into the task of learning from such experiences.
“I get the distinct vibe that people are excited to be here,” Dr. Rinehimer said. “That sort of environment and that attitude is infectious; so, if someone is hesitant or nervous…they see their peers having fun, they see me having fun, that environment can bleed over.”
Junior Paleena Amy is an environmental studies and physics double major who experienced the transition to online labs firsthand.
Amy said that while physics labs are hands-on, they differ from environmental science labs where students are conducting field research.
“Physics labs help you understand the science more, and environmental labs get you dirty,” Amy said.
So, the transition to online labs also varied. Where her environmental studies professor asked Amy to complete tasks like watching clouds for a lab, her physics professors relied on online simulations and videos of themselves, because virtual students lacked equipment and access to campus facilities.
Junior Victoria Allen’s online labs took a more hands-on approach with one of her labs in spring 2020 having them dissect pig specimens at home.
“[It] basically entailed searching up, ‘What color is a fetal pig liver,’ and that was just incredibly horrible to try to do online, because it’s not like they had the infrastructure in place to switch like that,” Allen said.
Sophomore Laurel Krause only knew online labs at WC until her hyflex course in spring 2021.
“It was really boring,” Krause said. “The things we did were almost kind of like busy work, and it kind of coincided with what we were doing, but not super well. And it wasn’t fun, so I didn’t really learn as much as I would have hoped to from them.”
Krause struggled with using the equipment at home, and was often unsure if she had done her experiments correctly.
Krause was not alone in her methods inexperience, Amy said that she realized last year that she was a rising junior with almost no field research experience. Dr. Van Meter also said Krause’s feedback was echoed by other students.
“Students actively told us that even though we tried our best to give them a good lab experience online, they felt they missed out on certain opportunities to develop skills,” Dr. Van Meter said. “So, I’m excited for the students because [in-person labs are] helping them build skill sets that will help with jobs, with internships, with graduate school.”
Now that they are in-person, students’ labs are engaging them with the natural world and methods of their disciplines.
A group of six students re-entered the world of in-person learning and field work over the summer when Dr. Van Meter & Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Studies Dr. Rebecca Fox led them on a 10-day excursion across Maryland.
Amy, Krause, and Allen were three such students who took to the road, driving across Maryland’s five geographical regions and conducting research, such as line transections, water testing, and microorganism studies.
“It was a lot of experience and I, at the end of the week, told them that I’m actually confident in my ability to do. . . my own research project,” Amy said.
Krause said that her transition to in-person classes was “a little intimidating” at first, “but it was definitely very relaxing and comforting to see that we were actually going to do interesting things [in lab].”
Working through in-person field work allows Krause to apply her classroom lessons to the world around her.
“Being able to go outside and just do class outside, I feel more like an environmental science major…I feel like I’m applying everything I learned,” Krause said. “Being out in nature, and just actually doing things, and collecting data that matters, not just an online simulation.”
Photo by Izze Rios