Dealing with lab closure and the student practical experience

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One of the hardest parts of dealing with the pandemic has been managing the closure of practical labs for our students.

With the overnight closure of the university in March 2020 we had to shut our labs. At that time we had completed nearly all of our taught undergraduate and masters lab teaching for the semester (a couple of labs were cancelled, the majority had run). It did leave us with problems for our final year projects though, as I wrote about here.

Lab classes are the cornerstone of many scientific degrees, with chemistry and biosciences students usually spending around a quarter of their time in the lab each week. The lab component of the courses are a requirement for accreditation by professional bodies. Our BSc Chemistry is accredited by the Royal Society of Chemistry, who stipulate a degree should consist of 300 hours of practical experience. Our MSc programmes are also accredited by the RSC, whilst biosciences courses either by the Royal Society of Biology of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences. Much has been written about why labs are important but suffice to say they are one aspect that will not be removed from science degrees whatever the new normal may be!

Coming back in September was a different challenge. With social distancing our labs had gone down in capacity to around a third of their normal. This meant we had to strip out the practical class structure and concentrate on giving all of the students an opportunity to come onto campus and gain some important lab skills. We designed the the semester to include important techniques relevant to each course at the appropriate level (first or second year UG or MSc, our final years have no practical in S1). This ‘wet’ lab proggramme was supplemented with some additional ‘dry’ labs, either using virtual simulations or data from previous experiments from the students to analyse.

This semester it has been difficult as we are faced with full lab closure for the whole semester. We hadn’t planned prior to Christmas that this would be the case, but had an inkling. We did plan for practical classes but they didn’t happen. Whilst in theory the labs may be able to open later in the semester (lets see on that one), we usually frontload our labs for first and second years (and MSc) to allow full access to our final year students after the first five or six weeks. More on the final year students of 2021 another time.

For first and second years we have now developed a programme of dry labs. There are some really interesting things for students to get into, from designing synthetic chemistry experiments to virtual labs to data analysis. We will have to see how it has gone at the end of the year and how we are set with regard the required hours for accreditation. There are options to do more in following years, both real and virtual, to supplement if required. I am sure we will all reflect on this long and hard, for now I’d say we have done the best we can at times in very difficult circumstances.

For the masters students we designed a cohesive package of labs that covered core skills. The analytical labs (my area) have been based on simulators that are available online for GC-MS and HPLC with varying applications and designed to supplement there foundations of chromatography lectures. I have worked with David Smith who has lead the biosciences part – more to come on this as we are writing up our experience of the MSc labs for publication. I have shared the lab outlines with a few, feel free to email me if interested.

We have manged it the best we can. In hindsight we could have planned a whole academic year of dry labs and used more virtual packages. However these things take time, from a development point of view and from a procurement (some packages have had to be purchased by the University and weren’t available until recently). As I reflect I think the students are getting a good experience, they and staff are understandably frustrated though. I think we all had hoped to include more ‘wet’ practical experience this year than we have had and in the summer when planning for this academic year we (royal we?) hadn’t really planned on the winter shut down. In hindsight the wrong approach, but that is where we are. We should have planned a whole semester of dry labs and supplemented when possible with wet (the inverse of the actual plan). Sometimes hope wins over pragmatism, although I’d say we are pretty pragmatic and realistic with our planning on the whole.

Employers perspective

I spoke with some employers recently about what skills they would expect our students to develop if they are not getting the same level of lab time. The good news for students is that many large employers (big pharma and similar) are expecting a slight drop off in lab skills and are ready to step up to help graduates. They highlighted some of the skills they expect from graduate entrants:

  • Curiosity
  • Experiment planning
  • Problem solving
  • Data analysis
  • Presentation of results
  • Ability to communicate with others online
  • IT skills

This is good news for most of our students and proves even if we think we can improve (again maybe this is a royal we), we (collective) have done a good job upskilling our students to make them more likely to get a job (definition of the buzzword employability)…

I’m interested in how other universities have coped, I’ve spoken with a few others at the RSC Heads of Chemistry meetings and look forward to catching up again at our May meeting. Let me know your thoughts!

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.