How We Taught a Hands-On Lab Remotely

Arthur Felse, associate professor of instruction, and John Docter, research technologist, for Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) share how the Bioprocess Engineering Lab was reimagined to address COVID-19 pandemic disruptions.

Arthur Felse, associate professor of instruction, and John Docter (MBP '20) share how the Bioprocess Engineering Lab was reimagined to address COVID-19 pandemic disruptions.

Imagine needing to create therapeutic proteins like insulin. Which processes are involved in the creation and purification before it gets to patients? The answer requires a knowledge of upstream and downstream techniques in bioprocessing — exactly what students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) learn in Bioprocess Engineering Lab, a course that typically is 80 percent lab work and 20 percent lectures.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Arthur Felse, associate professor of instruction for MBP, to reimagine how to teach such a lab-intensive course while still following proper safety and social-distancing guidelines. The result was a hybrid model that allowed him to keep all content he previously taught, while giving students new opportunities to assume leadership in the lab. 

Felse and John Docter (MBP '20), who assists as a lab technician, explained via email how they went about changing the delivery of course content, what they learned from the process, and what advice they would give to other teachers looking to adapt their content for hybrid learning.  

How did you change the lab setup from what it was prior to the pandemic?

We had to implement rotations among student teams to restrict the number of people in the lab. There are two rotations on each experiment day, so students get to spend about half the time in the lab they would have before the pandemic. But when students are in the lab during their rotations, they have undivided access to the experiment, unlike pre-pandemic when they had to share access with other team members.  

What are the biggest obstacles in trying to run a lab class virtually?

The biggest obstacle was trying to think about remote students and how to re-package the knowledge they would acquire in the lab. We were able to adapt the experiments so there were parts that could be done while the experiment was ongoing but without the need to interact with the equipment. For example, students working with our cellular bioreactor have to do several calculations to get the operation up and running, and they have to keep track of cell growth and oxygen transfer rate as the experiment progresses. These are great opportunities for remote students to take the lead and be engaged in the experiment, while the in-person student operates the equipment and performs sample analysis. So, while there are obstacles to running the lab class virtually, they are not insurmountable.  

What type of technology was needed to make the hybrid lab setup work?

With the help of McCormick IT, we set up laptops, cameras, microphones, and speakers at each station for audio and video communication between remote and in-person students. All experiments were shared live, and each experiment and team was assigned to a breakout room with two-way audio and video communication. We also provided plenty of disposable face masks and hand sanitizer to students. On the virtual side, we use Lab Archives, an electronic lab notebook. We use that as a repository for the lab information, including experimental protocols, photo and video illustrations and tutorials, chemical information, as well as a place for students to record and make notes during their experiments. The goal was to put everything in one place, so the students have all the resources they need to generate data independently and to minimize the time instructors might be near students.

What did you learn from this experience of changing the structure of the course?

We learned how students were dividing the work for each experiment. The tasks students are responsible for aren’t different from what they were pre-pandemic. The difference is we have one student doing the hands-on procedure, with the rest of the student teams observing and supporting remotely. Since tasks were clearly divided, each student was able to own their work and take equal responsibility in successful completion of the experiment.

We also realized hybrid modality can improve some aspects of learning and instruction. Hybrid learning lends to smoother experiments, clearer division of work between team members, and more effective collaboration. Hybrid learning also gives students a chance to take the lead and make decisions where they might not have had the opportunity to previously. In a normal, fully in-person setting, some students will always gravitate toward leadership or have the knowledge necessary to lead, while others might just decide to follow along and help where they can. In hybrid mode, this isn't the case. Because of the lab rotations and clearer division of roles, all students are required to assume a leadership role in some capacity, to ask for help and make decisions themselves, rather than following along.

What advice would you give to a fellow teacher trying to teach hands-on work remotely?

First, figure out the most important learning outcomes for the students and the biggest takeaway from the class. Then, adapt the class to meet that end. In our case, we want students to gain familiarity with industrial processes, experimental procedures, and data generation and analysis. There are many ways to meet those goals. For in-person, we had one methodology, and with our hybrid model we had another, but both serve the same end.

We also found a lot of success addressing the parts of the experiments that students consistently find challenging. For example, the hard part of our course isn’t necessarily in the operation of the bioprocessing units, but instead in analyzing and drawing conclusions from the raw data generated. It helps to dedicate a lab class just to training students in the most challenging part of the experiment through practice datasets and, if needed, pre-lab instruction on basic lab skills. It’s also useful to have a list of tasks that remote students can perform during the experiments so they have a starting point for their day.

Finally, it is important to connect effectively with students, both in-person and remote. We generally split our time during the day. John stays in the lab and assists in-person, while Arthur alternates between in-person and remote. This has worked well as we can offer support and guidance to all students in the course and keep them engaged throughout the experiment.

McCormick News Article