When I sent out a handful of emails to individuals in the life sciences that I knew had an interest in learning and teaching pedagogy asking whether it would be possible to have a discussion about what lab provision might look like during social distancing I never anticipated the appetite for the higher education sector for this topic. The first #DryLabsRealScience* webinar co-organised by Dr Nigel Francis (Swansea University) and Professor Ian Turner (University of Derby) was attended by over 120 academics from more than 30 different institutes across the UK, clearly demonstrating the need to discuss this issue within the life sciences. During a two-hour seminar, a range of speakers presented their thoughts and opinions on how the sector can come together to overcome the challenges that COVID-19 presents to wet lab provision for the forthcoming academic year. What came out of the meeting very strongly was that every institution is going to face similar problems and that those problems are far too large for individual lecturers or indeed individual institutions to resolve, so a collaborative approach with a sharing of resources, information and ideas provides the best solution. While some hurdles may be unique to institutions there were several common themes discussed that can largely be divided into two broad categories – firstly undergraduate lab provision in the first two years; secondly final year (capstone) projects and Master level projects.
The first thing to consider for undergraduate lab provision is what is the aim of wet labs and there is a host of literature out there offering very diverse and often opposing views as to the main aims of lab-based teaching. Supporting the theoretical knowledge gained in lectures through the development of technical competencies is obviously one aspect of labs, but this mode of teaching does so much more, it allows students to develop social peer groups and to learn from their peers, discussing ideas or watching how others approach a problem. It is where the student-staff relationship really starts to develop, with the closer interaction between academics and students allowing for a softer and more personalised approach than lecture-based teaching can provide and it is possibly these latter aspects that are going to be more challenging to replicate in the virtual world.
The main approaches discussed for replacing wet lab provision centred around three themes: videos, data simulation/analysis and interactive resources. Whilst it is clear that these are going to be absolutely necessary for the start of the academic year the challenge remains that no amount of virtual lab work is going to replace the hands-on acquisition of technical skills that are required by the modern life science graduate. However, what these types of resources can offer is allowing students the ability to practise some of the skills online and gain a more theoretical understanding of the techniques, which can then be reinforced and practised, in what is likely to be an intensive period of lab-based teaching under strict social distancing if we are allowed back in the labs in 2021. Indeed, one of the key messages from the Royal Society of Biology accreditation team was that re-blocking the degree to ensure that all the technical competencies were met throughout the course was both likely to be a requirement but also entirely sensible under the current constraints. Another important consideration is how to keep students actively engaged and passionate about their subject if they are being taught the drier theory without the more ‘exciting’ lab-based backup? Could this be where interactive videos or simulations play their role allowing students some sense of the technical? Providing students with ready-made datasets is also likely to be a key approach, but this may require a rethink in terms of assessment, moving away from straightforward analysis and interpretation of data to a more experimental design approach with different data sets being provided based on the quality or robustness of the experiment. Getting students to work remotely in teams may, in part, allow some of those peer social groups to start forming. Importantly, students are likely to be understanding of the challenges so long as they see that institutions have put in place robust alternatives and it is clear to the students that they have given thought to how they are going to allow them to gain the required skills over their course.
Provision of final year and Master level projects is a separate challenge, by this stage, a number of the core lab competencies should have been acquired and the projects for both these sets of students is about demonstrating these competencies in the lab to investigate a research question, generate novel findings to analyse and interpret. The assessment requirements for these projects are unlikely to change and nor should it as this is what we are training our students to do – be scientists. Unfortunately, these students are likely to be towards the bottom of the list of priorities when labs do reopen in whatever form that takes, as PIs try to re-establish their research programmes, prioritising postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. Therefore, even if labs were to open early in 2021 there are probably going to be very limited wet lab opportunities for these other groups, so dry projects are going to be fundamental for these students.
The main consideration for dry projects is that they are most likely going to have to be carried out at home, this remote supervision poses some challenges for both staff and student, such as a steep learning curve for academics involved in online support, the availability of software and the skills to use that software through to broader considerations as to the appropriateness of current assessment methods. That being said, there are a range of research project opportunities including, but not limited to pedagogical studies related to the shift to online teaching, computational systems biology simulations, dataset analysis particularly linked to the current COVID-19 pandemic, which are widely available through to systematic reviews and meta-analysis. The key aspect is that whatever projects are offered they need to be enquiry-based and require the students to analyse and interpret novel data. While these projects may not match up to the wet lab expectations our students signed up for, they do at least fulfil the requirements of capstone projects at the different programme levels.
There are no magic solutions to the current COVID-19 crisis and likewise, there are no magic solutions to the challenges facing the HE sector, however, as the title of this article suggests, together we are stronger and a collaborative effort is likely to be our best bet for coming out the other side of this not only intact but stronger as a sector.
The ideas summarised here are collated from the ideas of the authors and presentations from Professors David Coates & Robert Slater (both RSB) and Drs Malcolm Stewart, Craig Campbell (both Oxford University) and Nigel Ternan (Ulster University).
Find out more about Advance HE’s Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project which started 18 May 2020.