COVID-19 changes practical labs, research opportunities for students

By Ethan Werner, Contributing Writer

Students in Urbana-Champaign and around the world have been dealing with new struggles this semester due to COVID-19. While many classes were able to smoothly transition online, some practical STEM classes have had difficulty transitioning to remote learning due to their “hands-on” nature. 

Professor Gopu Nair in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering teaches two practical classes. Fortunately, the lab section of each class had limited seats to begin with, so staying distanced and maintaining guidelines has not been a problem. The lectures are posted online each week instead of being given it in person.

One of the main issues stemming from new precautions and restrictions has been accessibility to the demonstrations.

“In terms of demonstrating things, we always asked people to come closer and look at it, but now we cannot be able to do that, Nair said. “That really extends the lab time because I have to do more demonstrations. Because my courses are all hands-on, I cannot do it on video.”

This problem also cuts into the class schedule as the professor must give the demonstration multiple times to various students because they were not able to see it all before. 

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Not only did this issue affect the class schedule, but the guidelines of frequent testing and restricting building access have inhibited some students from getting to their classes. If students get the virus, they are then behind in the class for at least the two weeks they must miss. Nair must adjust their schedules accordingly, thus adding more work for both parties.

Even with all of the scheduling issues, Nair said he has been fortunate to still be able to keep his class relatively the same except for online lectures and stricter guidelines. Not all labs have been as fortunate.

Sonia Tomcyzk, a senior in ACES, is enrolled in such a lab in the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences. This semester, she has been taking NRES 302: Dendrology, or the study of trees. 

“Even our professor has said that (we are being cheated out of the full class experience) because we can’t go to other places,” Sonia said. “Our labs usually take field trips every week to a state park or something that’s further away, but because of COVID, we have to walk everywhere, so that is definitely affecting our knowledge of learning certain things,” she said. 

While practical labs and research still being conducted in-person are being negatively impacted by the modern pandemic, some remote research in STEM fields has somewhat benefited from some of the adjustments that had to be made.

Alex Mroz, a sophomore in AHS, is in a lab studying speech rehabilitation, doing research specifically on Hispanic bilingual people about how effects of the voice differ when speaking Spanish or English. While Alex said she may not necessarily enjoy doing research online, she still recognized some of the benefits that can come from it.

She said, “It makes the process a little easier. Instead of having to look for people and then interview them, we already have the audio files that we need so all we need to do is listen to it & transcribe it.”

Mroz said that she doesn’t think that doing her research online is necessarily inhibiting her, but she still recognized that it would be a lot better if she was able to interact with her moderator and fellow researchers. The ability to do so is one of the major benefits of in-person classes right now.

The structure of this semester has had some students greatly appreciating the classes they have in person this semester because there are so few of them. Many acknowledge the privilege it is to be able to meet with a lab during a pandemic, to have the ability to meet with professors and peers.

“Some students, this is the only hands-on class for them. They totally are enjoying it a lot because the university is where people want to see each other,” Professor Nair explained. “And, you know, that’s how you learn — you learn more than the subject, you learn how to be in an environment. In that case, they are appreciating it a lot,” he said. 

The students who don’t have any in-person classes are anticipating the day they can return to the classrooms. Even students who may currently have one or two in-person classes are anxious to take more when this is over.

“I miss having in-person classes, I think a lot of people do, so it’s nice to actually be able to go to class and interact with your professor and classmates,” Tomcyzk said.

Nair said, “That’s how you progress, rather than doing things alone, helping others, seeing others learn and dealing with the problems hands on — you make progress that way.”

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