Opinion: What I didn’t get last semester
Online lab science was a failed educational experience that invaded my home environment
I went into the fall 2020 semester bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Yes, the first semester of my freshman year was going to be completely virtual, but I still had hope. I was naively optimistic, and for the most part, my first semester at American University was fine. Icebreakers were even more awkward online, but they were over in 30 seconds and I could return to the safety of being muted. Lectures were less interactive, but that comes with the territory. It was smooth sailing. Everything was okay, except for my bio lab.
I was eager to see how the University was going to handle lab classes. Were they going to be videos? Was I going to have to order a rat to my house and dissect it in my dining room? I wondered how they could possibly replicate a worthwhile lab experience online. To preface, I have always loved science. I spent most of my high school career figuring out how to shove another science class into my semester. Lab classes were always my favorite. Nothing helped me learn more than the hands-on experience of dissecting organs or dumping some chemicals into a tube to create a reaction. That was the fun part of science. Going into my first semester at AU, I knew that my biology class was going to be one of my favorites. However, I didn’t know that the online lab component was soon going to be the bane of my existence. It quickly became the worst part of my week, the Zoom link I hated to click on.
My bio lab typically looked like this: The TA would release the materials needed for the lab the week before we had it. We had to gather everything from household chemicals to strawberries to plant leaves. One week, we were even tasked with finding our own piece of rotten fruit to examine under our microscopes. The microscopes were often a core part of the lab, but the ‘microscopes’ were barely even microscopes. Our MicroFlips, which were $20 on Amazon, were excruciatingly hard to use. The image quality was never good and the slides got scratched easily, which made seeing our specimens ever harder. To take pictures of the specimens, you needed a special clip to connect the camera to the microscope. The clip barely even fit my iPhone and covered most of the camera.
The worst week of lab was week 5, when we had to take pictures of plant cells, eukaryotic cells, bacteria and fungi. To get eukaryotic cells, I had to swish salt water around my mouth to harvest my own epithelial cheek cells. Under the microscope, it was hard to differentiate between the cells and salt, but even harder once I added a DIY stain, which made the sample dark blue. For the fungi cells, I had to leave an avocado out for a few days beforehand so I could harvest the fungi as it decayed.
But, the bacteria cells were the most puzzling. How was I supposed to find my own bacteria? The TA suggested leaving hummus out in a warm environment and testing the mold and fuzz. I cranked the heat up in my guest room and left the hummus to rot. Unfortunately, the only thing that happened was a nauseating scent that hit you as soon as you walked into the room. There was no bacteria to be seen under the microscope. Next, I tried kombucha, as the TA instructed. That weekend, I spent nine hours bent over the microscope looking desperately for bacteria from the gunk at the bottom of a kombucha bottle. The only thing that resembled bacteria was three little dots on one of my pictures of the kombucha, but blink and you’ll miss them. The thing is, bacteria starts to become visible at roughly 400x on a microscope. The MicroFlip could only magnify up to 250x.
Labs are supposed to be educational and fun. You are supposed to leave the lab knowing more than when you entered. Last semester, it was neither. I did not feel like I learned anything. It wasn’t fun, nor was it educational. I know that being online presented unprecedented challenges, but the lab was something I could have gone without. I did not learn how to properly use a microscope or other crucial bench skills that I could have used to get internships or do research. At best, the labs were two-and-a-half hours of busy work. At worst, labs were confusing and poorly run with no one there to help.
According to the AU Core website, science classes with labs are designed to help us “synthesize theory, observation, and experimentation to understand the natural world through laboratory, simulation, or field experience.” After this lab class, I only understand the natural world through my MicroFlip and rotten hummus. I have zero bench skills that would help me be competitive for internships or other research opportunities. Labs only compounded Zoom fatigue and highlighted the in-person experiences I was missing out on.
Riley Lorgus is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences and a staff columnist for The Eagle.