A successful lab experiment

February 17, 2021

Knowing the importance of hands-on learning to understand scientific processes, professors adjusted their lab lessons so students could continue to benefit from experiential learning wherever their locations. And students say it’s working.

 Graphic by Violet Dashi
Graphic by Violet Dashi

A lesson about fermentation and respiration leads to fresh baked muffins. Cell phones can transform into light-measuring spectrophotometers. Oil, water and a few kitchen items help explain polar and nonpolar surfaces.

This is science led by innovative educators who know lab work is an essential ingredient to academic success in science fields.

Rachel Pricer
Biochemistry Lecturer Rachel Pricer

“Hands-on learning is so much more engaging for students and fosters active learning.  Students are conducting experiments and gathering their own data as opposed to having data given to them,” says Biology Lecturer Judy Nesmith. “The hands-on element models the scientific method where students must make hypotheses, gather data and then analyze their data and draw conclusions.”

Biochemistry and Biology Professor Marliee Benore says the social distance challenges brought on by the pandemic led several College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters faculty to find ways to adapt their coursework to meet the academic needs of students. 

Benore says hundreds of biology-focused kits were created in the fall and winter semesters. Geology professors distributed take-home rock, gem and mineral kits. Behavioral ecology courses are using live-streamed webcams from zoos to observe and test hypotheses for animal behavior studies. She says many CASL instructors have adapted — and continue to adapt — their courses to give students an engaging learning experience.

“We’ve spent a significant amount of time rewriting, creating and testing labs,” she says. “We want to get students back into the classrooms and labs at soon as it’s possible, but until then we will continue to find ways to meet learning objectives and teach critical skills.”

Junior Tejas Athavale, who is on the pre-med track, says he appreciates the customized kits to help him understand the body’s complex chemical processes in his BIO 210: Biochemistry course. When he opened the kit for the first time, he realized the effort that went into it.

“The kits are brilliant. My professor recreated a lesson typically carried out in a scientific laboratory so I could do it safely in my kitchen. These are not pre-packaged labs bought online; it’s customized to our lessons. You can tell the professors spent a lot of time putting these together,” Athavale says. “That pandemic has created challenges, but our professors are doing whatever they can to make sure that we get these lab concepts.”

Biochemistry Lecturer Rachel Pricer, who teaches Athavale’s course, constructed kits to help further understanding about topics like bacterial growth and resistance, and separating DNA fragments according to size. 

But her kits served another purpose too. They were constructed to familiarize students with common lab materials so they would be prepared for upper-level science courses. Her kits contained pipettes, various biochemical measuring devices and storage containers like Agar plates.

Nothing can fully replace an in-lab experience, but Natural Sciences Building Lab Manager Tasha Smith says the faculty creating these learning solutions have replicated it as closely as they could.

“Science is a tactile field. To get a deep understanding of the material, you need to get into the trenches and do it yourself,” she says. “Our faculty know this. And they went through an intensive process — like getting U-M Environmental, Health, and Safety approval for kits and sometimes going out last minute to find items when there were shipping delays — to make it work for our students.” CASL’s science faculty say Smith and her lab team are instrumental in assembling the biology kits. 

Athavale says his UM-Dearborn professors are great at instruction. But through the pandemic, he’s seen that they bring more than academic expertise into their courses.

“It’s not just about a course; it’s about us. They want to make sure we have the level of understanding we need so we can succeed in research or medical school or whatever our goals may be,” he says. “Going to school in a pandemic is hard, but professors who genuinely care about you and your success definitely make it easier.”