Science Department’s Experiments With At-Home Labs Draw Mixed Results

A table on the ground floor of the high school where students have been able to pick up materials for science labs. Photo by Adam Leff.

At the beginning of the school year, junior Ken Bailey picked up, along with his textbooks, butterfly larvae and milkweed plants. Those were two parts of a lab kit for his Research in Environmental Science course. Over the following weeks, Bailey raised and observed butterflies with the rest of his class—until his died due to the cold of his basement. 

But not all students have had the chance to do hands-on science at home like Bailey has in that and other labs since. Without access to GDS lab facilities, science teachers have had to reshape the way they demonstrate important concepts. In place of collaborative in-person experiments, most teachers have been using virtual demonstrations or substantially simplified at-home experiences.

Science teacher Cori Coats, the former department chair who has assumed the secondary role of lab coordinator this school year, said that certain advanced biology labs requiring specialized technology are “just a little bit too sophisticated and a little bit too dangerous to send home.” (The job of lab assistant was left vacant after Trish McCole departed from GDS at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.) 

According to Coats, courses with high numbers of students in them have had to cut or substantially modify “wet” labs, which involve manipulating chemical or biological matter and gathering data directly. 

Science Department Chair Nina Butler-Roberts said in an interview before spring break that “labs are intended to be done with partners and shared equipment and shared space.” Historically, labs for GDS’ biology and chemistry courses required a level of partner interaction and teacher supervision that cannot happen in conjunction with social distancing guidelines.

Safer modified activities have taken the place of labs that would be hazardous without supervision. “Every kit that we sent home was part of our conversation about what could be sent home in terms of a student’s ability,” Butler-Roberts said, adding that “as a result, that also limited what experiments could be done.”

Sometimes, Butler-Roberts said, teachers have used online lab simulations such as Gizmos or Pivot Interactives in place of hands-on labs to illustrate the concepts being taught.

In addition to his environmental science class, Bailey is taking Mechanics, a physics course which has primarily had to make use of online demonstrations. “I think being virtual has really limited Matt [Friel]’s capacity to assign interesting and on-topic labs,” he said.

Another limitation is the cost and difficulty of procuring and distributing the materials for each lab. Sophomore Ashok Tate has seen the effects of that while taking Chemistry I Extended: Most of his class’ labs “have been using baking soda and vinegar in some way,” he said.

Butler-Roberts noted that the materials for chemistry courses have been simplified across the board. “We haven’t been able to do single- and double-replacement or reaction prediction types of labs because a lot of those reagents are not reagents that can be shipped,” she said, referring to the chemicals necessary to perform a reaction. Even mild toxins can pose a risk—both to students’ safety and the school’s legal liability—if students improperly handle them at home.

Science teacher Vinay Mallikaarjun, who designed the Cellular and Molecular Biology course, intended it to be as lab-intensive as its precursor, AP Biology. “In an ideal world, I would love for the kids to do all of the labs that they could in a normal year,” he said. But many are not doable at home or in person with COVID restrictions and have been cut from the curriculum.

Despite that loss, the science department has also had some rousing successes.

Mallikaarjun said that the portable microscopes given to his students were easier to use and worked as well as the larger, more cumbersome microscopes students previously used on campus. Even after COVID, he said, he plans to continue to use them for some introductory labs.

Looking forward, the department hopes to increase usage of lab facilities because more students will be in person. “Even though we will still be having social distancing parameters in place,” Butler-Roberts said, “we are anticipating that we will be doing labs at some point in the very near future,” including “in classes where we haven’t been able to do it as much.”

Ken Bailey’s butterflies may have died last fall, but teachers are hopeful that GDS science will soon start to come back to life.

Adam Leff ’22