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Lab and Experiential Courses

Discussion: Designing Remote Labs and Experiential Courses

Video | Slides

Cassandra Horii, CTLO Director, Mike Vicic, Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, Katie Bouman, Assistant Professor in CMS, Mike Mello, Teaching Professor in Mechanical and Civil Engineering, and Jim Barry, Faculty in Fine Arts discuss various different approaches to designing remote labs and experiential courses or course components. Panelists share their insights, successes, and lessons learned from the spring and participants will have a chance to discuss and ask questions about their ideas for the fall.

Caltech recognizes that lab and experiential courses pose unique challenges for remote instruction.

A combination of approaches may help create an online experience that addresses many of the learning goals of the original course. Here are some recommendations and resources to help you plan.

Focus on the Main Learning Objectives

Students often gain many different kinds of skills from lab and experiential courses, ranging from practice with physical procedures and skills, to data collection and analysis, to complex reasoning and reflection bridging theory and practice. Which ones are most important? Could they be taught, practiced, and demonstrated in different ways, perhaps through distinct aspects of the course, instead of through a unified in-person experience?

Science and Engineering Lab Examples

Students could design experiments and generate hypotheses based on scenarios and/or literature.

Students could observe a video-recorded experiment, and from the video, record data for analysis, answer questions about how and why the procedure was conducted, and reflect on whether hypotheses were confirmed. Instructors might create videos (using a smartphone or Zoom videoconferencing), or might find suitable videos among these resources:

Alternatively, students could use a virtual lab or simulation for some of the same kinds of learning (these differ from videos in that they typically involved animated graphics and interactive controls that students can manipulate), e.g.:

There are many more STEM-focused sources for simulations, virtual labs, and videos listed in this interactive spreadsheet.

Three Main Approaches at Caltech - Spring 2020

In spring 2020, Caltech lab and experiential course instructors largely adopted the following overall approaches:

  1. REMOTE APPROACH:
    In this approach, the lab or experiential activities are kept largely the same, but they are carried out on campus by the instructor or TA. Although challenging to do well, and time consuming, in some cases students were able to join the lab or experiential activity synchronously via video conference (i.e., Zoom). To be engaged, instructors found it helpful to give students active roles: e.g., provide input or decisions on next steps, or control lab equipment or data acquisition when possible via remote desktop application.
  2. AT-HOME APPROACH:
    In this approach, lab or experiential activities are adapted so that they can be carried out in students' homes. Safety is a big consideration, as is getting any materials that need to be procured and mailed to students out so that they arrive in a timely manner. When at-home approaches worked, they were often adaptations different from what the on-campus activity might have been, but addressing some of the same learning outcomes (e.g., with common household materials instead of specialized items).
  3. RECONCEPTUALIZED APPROACH
    This approach is useful when there is not a good way to engage student remotely or find an at-home activity that would be suitable. In these cases, the lab or experiential activities may be quite different from the original For example, students might turn to simulations, write proposals, or otherwise work on the thinking, analysis, and other aspects that are part of the course goals.

Other Experiential and Performance-based Courses

For non-STEM experiential and performance-based courses, consider how video-based demonstrations (live or recorded), experiential assignments that students can conduct on their own (which they could potentially video record using a phone and turn in or share with peers, or reflect on/analyze orally or in writing), could provide a mix of instruction, practice, and synthesis appropriate to your subject matter and goals. Here is a crowdsourced resource on teaching production courses online (e.g., media, film, dance, design, etc.), which may provide additional ideas.

The Role of Assignments and Exams

Across online experiential and lab courses, giving students assignments that ask them to practice key forms of thinking, analysis, and skills; giving them feedback on their work; and providing opportunities where they can demonstrate their mastery (e.g., exams, projects, and final demonstrations in various formats) can effectively support student learning. The Assignments and Exams section will provide additional ideas and resources.

Lab Notebooks

Caltech has in institutional license for LabArchives, a platform for digital lab notebooks with features designed for teaching.

Additional Resources

Here are several additional websites that you may find useful (though keep in mind that institutional resources, tools, and software subscriptions vary):