Zoom Labs: Replicating Hands-on Learning in Virtual Education

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Mallika Bariya, Materials Science and Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

Challenge: In the first fully remote semester of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was a GSI for Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) 45L, a core lab course. Labs revolve around hands-on participation and pose a unique challenge for remote learning. The key question facing the MSE 45L teaching staff was how to impart complex lessons on experimental procedures, data collection, and safety for students distributed across countries and time zones. In parallel, we faced broader questions on how to facilitate discussion, encourage participation, and assess learning outcomes when interactions with and between students are all mediated by a screen. 

Approach: We considered several approaches for teaching the labs virtually, including live-streaming the GSIs performing experiments or uploading a weekly recording for students to watch on their own time. We ultimately combined these ideas, creating a video recording of the staff performing each week’s experiments and then holding a live Zoom “watch party” during normal section hours, where students watched the video along with their GSI. This approach had several advantages. First, the live watch party allowed students to ask questions and interact with their GSI and peers in real time, mirroring an in-class experience. Second, the pre-prepared videos could seamlessly integrate footage of lab procedures with overlaid narrative, microscope images to highlight sample transformations, and graphics and music to keep the lessons engaging. During the watch parties, I frequently paused the video to provide a refresher on background theory or emphasize safety considerations. To encourage participation, I posed questions and divided students into Zoom breakout rooms to discuss conceptual and experimental subtleties together. These watch parties were recorded and uploaded online so students unable to attend synchronously could benefit from the questions and discussions as well.

Traditionally, students taking MSE 45L conduct experiments, record data, and analyze it in their weekly lab reports. Meticulous data collection is a critical lab skill, and we wanted students to develop this habit despite not conducting experiments in person. Towards this goal, our prerecorded lab videos contained real-time footage of samples hooked up to analytical instruments. Students rewatched these segments on their own time, pausing to record instrument readings in a formal lab notebook format for analysis in their lab reports. This simulated data collection conveyed the importance of maintaining clear lab notebooks and encouraged students to think about sources of measurement error, capturing key learning outcomes in the virtual environment.

Evaluation: To gauge students’ understanding, I posed questions during the watch parties and used Zoom polls to solicit answers, adjusting the watch party pace and focus depending on the results. When students were clear on concepts and procedures, I let the video play uninterrupted; when students were confused, we replayed portions of the video and paused more frequently to discuss. This approach let me engage, evaluate, and accommodate the class in real time, creating an active, participatory learning environment.

Students’ lab reports provided further insights into common points of confusion, and I reviewed these topics at the start of the next week’s watch party. These mini-review sessions covered technical writing, statistics, curve fitting, and measurement error, focusing on weaknesses in earlier reports to improve students’ data analysis and presentation going forward. By the end of the semester, students’ reports had improved in clarity and communication and their Zoom poll results showed a consistent grasp of the material. In their end-of-semester evaluations, students were unanimously positive about the live watch party format and its combination of recorded experiments and organic discussions, breakout rooms, and polls. 

A final positive outcome of this unprecedented semester was that it resulted in a repository of watch party recordings that capture each lab comprehensively, from real-time experimental footage to review sessions to discussions that help clarify concepts and procedures along the way. These videos will hopefully remain a valuable resource for MSE 45L students in semesters to come, even after labs return to in-person instruction.