Embracing Hands-on Learning in Online Labs at Middlesex

Patrick Bryan, Ph.D., biology professor at CT State Middlesex, is no stranger to finding solutions to help streamline online teaching. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, he looked for innovative ways to better engage students in hybrid courses. (See lightboard story.)

However, biology classes require hands-on labs to conduct experiments, and this was difficult to carry out during the pandemic, he said.

“I was in meetings where professors, including myself, stated they didn’t believe an online lab was a real class,” said Professor Bryan, noting that in-person labs were mostly cancelled during the pandemic semesters.

Even though pre-packaged at-home lab kits for use in online education have existed for years, they can be very expensive and still lack relevant data collection and experimental design, he added.

biology lab kitOver the past two years, Professor Bryan developed what he calls “experimental supply kits” that can be used to carry out in-person lab experiments that are the same, in many ways, to the experiments students conduct in person.

The kits have already undergone several redesigns and the lab activities expanded from what was first attempted toward the end of the pandemic. Now these at-home experiments can be conducted in both the non-majors and introductory majors biology courses.

Since Professor Bryan designed all the experiments for his biology labs, he invested considerable effort to ensure the kits were not only affordable but reusable in many instances. By sourcing materials at a cost under $50 for each kit, with some of the items donated by local biotech companies, he managed to keep expenses low without compromising quality.

Each kit contains a wooden test tube rack, a digital balance, microscope with custom base, graduate test tubes, dialysis tubing, filters, medicine cups, slides, forceps, pipettes, yeast, plant seeds, soil, algae, dyes and a number of other tools for conducting experiments and collecting data at home. The rack has a laser etched QR code linking to online instructions. In this video, Professor Bryan gives an overview of the kit for the non-majors Introduction to Biology (BIO 1005) lab course.

Professor Bryan laser cut the test tube racks and is building a redesigned microscope base. He said the new base was a result of several trials to find the best way to adjust the angle of the mirror in the microscope. The students use special counting slides, called hemocytometers, to view and count live cells. Obtaining contrast is challenging with an inexpensive scope, but the custom created base allows students to adjust the light and obtain an image equal in quality to a much more expensive lab microscope.

Once all the individual items are collected, Middlesex students are involved in organizing, labeling and assembling the kits.

scope with base

“Professor Bryan was extremely ambitious and creative in designing simple yet effective experiments for providing an at-home, hands-on learning experience for various biology concepts such as microscopy, plant germination, osmosis, diffusion, active transport, chromatography, fermentation, and many more,” noted Noah Graichen, a 2023 Middlesex biology graduate, who now serves as an educational assistant in the science department.

“Many educational institutions will no longer accept credit transfers from online lab courses, and many community college students, myself included, are dependent on transfer credits to further their education. This method in which Professor Bryan is teaching allows for online courses to be accepted for transfer at a higher success rate than fully online laboratory courses,” Noah added.

Professor Bryan said a major purpose of conducting biology lab experiments is to collect and analyze data. He found that the at-home labs can even allow students to carry out more work at home than they would have time for in a typical weekly lab.

“Rather than attending a once-a-week lab with a large class and sharing jobs with partners, all students are collecting their own data at home,” he explained. “Some experiments expand what is possible for classes that meet once a week and involve observation and data collection on a daily basis.”

Professor Bryan’s courses are General Biology I & II for majors and Intro to Biology for non-majors.

Summer classes at Middlesex begin on May 29. The fall semester begins on August 28. Register now.

Written by Thea Moritz
May 2024