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Students and faculty adjust as hands-on lab classes go remote

DTH Photo Illustration depicting a student with a mask on using a microscope.

Students and instructors are now determining how to move forward with previously in-person laboratory classes after UNC announced Monday that all undergraduate courses will shift to remote learning starting Wednesday.

Michel Gagne, a chemistry professor, said he was disappointed after hearing the University’s announcement.

“You know, we put in an awful lot of effort trying to find a way to do this and now we have to do a pivot and change,” he said. “Even though I’m getting tired of that word, 'pivot.'”

His synthetic chemistry lab had already been rearranged, he said.

“We front-loaded a lot of the laboratories at the beginning and planned to draw down activities in-person as the semester goes on,” he said. 

The plan was to get students in the lab as quickly as possible and transition to a non-in-person scenario later if necessary, but he said it would be a challenge if they couldn’t get into the lab at all. Hands-on skill development will be difficult, he said, as showing someone a video of how to do something is not the same as doing it.

“My preference, of course, would be to have them in the lab doing it themselves, but that’s not an option right now,” he said. “It’s not optimum, but it’s the way we’re going to have to do it.”

First-year Emily Garcia-Perez said her microbiology lab was following University guidelines when meeting in-person during the first week of classes — with plenty of personal protective equipment provided and with students spaced out in the room.

She said she was thankful the lab was being held in-person because it was easier to receive help and guidance from instructors.

“The lab’s rigor is a little bit harder than some of the other labs I’ve taken,” she said. “Just to have an instructor there that is able to come up to you, and just help you out and guide you through is a very big help.”

But when sophomore Jamie Roberts’ experimental techniques in physics lab went online, she said she was worried about learning important techniques in the new format. 

“I’m a little bit disappointed just because I worry about my future labs, but they taught it online over the summer, so I think they’re pretty well prepared,” she said.

UNC chemistry professor Gary Glish’s analytical research techniques lab, a graduate course, will continue in-person — but Glish said there is a backup plan for students who choose to take home components of the lab and work remotely.

He said the lab was able to be held in-person this semester because of its small class size. Only two students will be in the lab at a time to maintain proper social distancing, he said.

Because it is a graduate class, Glish said he feels more comfortable holding it in-person.

“I trust them to be more conscientious about things than maybe undergrads would, and they’re not going to be living in dorms or fraternities,” he said.

Gagne said he was hopeful this change would come later, but not surprised that it came early.

“Now we just need to figure out a way to do this that is doable on our end, but also going to be rewarding to the students,” he said.


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