Read our COVID-19 research and news.

A University of Colorado student uses an online simulator to design a circuit.

GLENN J. ASAKAWA/UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO, BOULDER

During the pandemic, students do field and lab work without leaving home

Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

In a normal summer, Appledore Island, a 39-hectare outcrop 12 kilometers off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire, becomes a classroom. Students from high school to graduate level live in close quarters, eat in a communal dining hall, and work shoulder to shoulder to explore the biology of the shore and waters in 18 courses organized by the Shoals Marine Laboratory. But this summer, with the pandemic surging, students have stayed home.

Instead, a skeleton staff on Appledore is streaming field trips and dissections of fish and invertebrates and setting up cameras to gather data for students. Rather than leading students around the island, coastal restoration ecologist Gregg Moore from the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Durham, hauls a backpack full of equipment: “a dual modem with two different cellular carriers, a signal-boosting directional antenna, and a large DC power source,” he says. The equipment allows him to teach 12 remote students—twice the course’s usual enrollment—basic techniques of coastal ecology.

Moore’s is just one of hundreds of lab and field courses forced online by COVID-19—“a seismic shift for those who were not already involved in distance or online education,” says Martin Storksdieck, a science education researcher at Oregon State University, Corvallis. Some researchers worry students will miss out on certain practical and problem-solving skills and won’t be able to judge whether the hands-on work of a scientist is a good fit for them. But instructors are developing high-tech ways to simulate the field and lab experiences. “I would say [these courses] are not virtual,” says Jennifer Seavey, director of the Shoals lab. “They are real.” And some advantages are emerging. By lowering geographical and financial barriers, Seavey says, “Virtual field courses are democratizing fieldwork.” The shift has taken ingenuity. “Professors must get creative and use a combination of what is available,” including online videos and free or commercially available online labs, says Mildred Pointer, a physiologist at Howard University who is working on a fall course in general biology. No single tool meets all their needs, Pointer says.

As the pandemic gained momentum, emails flew among the leaders of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. Many U.S. geology majors must take a “capstone” field course to graduate. The cancellation of more than three-quarters of these courses jeopardized graduation for many majors. So the association invited instructors to develop learning objectives that did not depend on students doing fieldwork. It also compiled online exercises to help the 29 field courses that have moved online this summer. Lessons range from “Orienteering in Minecraft” to “Geology of Yosemite Valley,” which includes a 43-stop Google Earth tour with photos and embedded text.

Like Moore, geoscientist Jim Handschy wanted to give remote students “as close to the real experience as possible.” He runs Indiana University’s Judson Mead Geologic Field Station in Montana, which had enrolled 60 students before classes were canceled in March. He and a few instructors visited each outcrop in their course plan, filmed the rocks and landscape, and captured magnified views of samples. Each week, the class delves deeper into the rock layers and their history. For their final project, students digitally map a 3100-hectare landscape.

Shannon Dulin, a geologist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, who just finished teaching a field course, sees the value of learning how to survey a landscape without setting foot on it. On their class evaluations, her students said they gained unexpected skills. “And these are skills they are going to need on the job,” she adds, as geologists are increasingly being asked to evaluate sites they don’t visit.

In other fields, hands-on learning takes place in labs. Typically, students work in pairs and share equipment, “so there are a lot of issues about virus transmission,” says Heather Lewandowski, a physicist at the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder. At her university this fall, lab exercises as diverse as building an electrical circuit or analyzing solar flare data will most likely be completely remote.

Luckily, physics already had a foot in the virtual lab world—especially at CU. There, back in 2002, Nobel laureate Carl Wieman developed the Physics Education Technology (PhET) Interactive Simulations project to provide “games” that teach students basic physics concepts. The PhET web portal now has 106 physics-based simulations and another 50 or so for other disciplines. It became a go-to place this spring for faculty shifting to online teaching; traffic from hard-hit countries increased fivefold, says Director Katherine Perkins.

In addition, several universities have adopted a handheld device called the iOLab that rents for $50 a semester. With it, students can measure magnetism, light intensity, acceleration, temperature, gravity, and atmospheric pressure, and do basic physics experiments at home. “They like that we trust them and are not just giving them instructions,” says iOLab inventor and physicist Mats Selen at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Lewandowski and her colleagues surveyed physics instructors and students about their experiences and posted their findings on arXiv, the physics preprint server, on 2 July. Respondents said online labs work best when projects are open-ended, and online class meetings are kept small. They complained about technical difficulties, students having unequal access to the internet and materials, and longer prep times for both students and instructors. But they reported they could meet most key learning objectives, Lewandowski says, even though “there are lots of things we can’t replicate in remote experiments,” such as building vacuum chambers or troubleshooting equipment.

Some institutions decided this spring that virtual just wouldn’t do. The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, simply canceled its summer courses. “MBL courses are world-renowned for the intensity of the hands-on nature of the lab work,” says Director Nipam Patel. Students spend long hours with famous faculty and do their own projects using organisms collected locally. “We felt that it would be exceedingly difficult to replicate these experiences as a virtual lab course.”

Other institutions will try for a mix of in-person and virtual labs. Suely Black, chemistry chair at Norfolk State University, expects only half of her students will be in lab each week this fall, while the other half will be in online classes analyzing data and writing reports. “The crisis has caused us to more critically evaluate what activities students must experience in the lab setting,” she says.

Similarly, this fall, organic chemistry students at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, will rotate into the lab in small groups, giving each a taste of the hands-on experience. Personal protection equipment is standard for this course and all the work is done in hoods with excellent air exchange, so “they are really fully protected,” says UM biochemist Kathleen Nolta.

Storksdieck, an advocate of online learning, questions the value of smelling fumes or using a pipette. “We have to ask whether all the hands-on taught so far was all that great,” he says. Dominique Durand, a biomedical engineer at Case Western Reserve University, says after he put a master’s program in biomedical engineering completely online 5 years ago, he concluded that solving problems was more important than handson experience. And University of California, Santa Cruz, ecologist Erika Zavaleta thinks virtual courses will open fieldwork to far more students. “There are things you can do online that you can’t do in person,” she adds, such as visiting more places than possible by driving.

Even so, Handschy laments that his geology students will not have the 12-hour-a-day immersive interactions with each other and faculty that past classes have had. Natalie White, a rising junior at UNH who took Moore’s course on Appledore last year, agrees: “You don’t have all the time in between when you walk around the island and can ask impromptu questions.” Appledore Island is the source of some her fondest memories. “I think they are missing out on the community.”

*Correction, 16 July, 4:40 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct Suely Black's gender.