Laboratory Science Goes On—With the Aid of Cat Toys

By John P. Deever

Physics Department Chair Monika Kress passionately believes in science and data. During the spring of 2020, sensing which way the wind was blowing, Kress started planning for how to do laboratory courses when students had begun to shelter in place indefinitely. COVID-19 was not going away by autumn, she saw. “That was clear to me as soon as we all went home in the middle of March.”

In early April, Kress wrote an unequivocal and clear message to her department: Physics in the fall would be taught online. “The science is clear: staying home saves lives,” she wrote. “Therefore, all physics and astronomy courses will be 100 percent online for the entire fall 2020 semester.” That included all labs. The CSU had not yet made the call for a fall remote semester, but Kress’ April verdict was: Start getting ready now.

Normally, Kress doesn’t teach a summer class. However, she felt aware, she says, that she was asking her department colleagues to do something hard—so she tackled it herself first. Kress taught the department’s summer section of Astronomy 101. “Part of being a good leader is to have actually walked a mile in the shoes of the people that you’re leading,” she says. “Now I have a better idea of the landscape and the challenges.”

Professor Ramen Bahuguna, who teaches the Physics 52 lab class, is a “mister hands on” lab guy and excellent teacher, Kress says. Bahuguna still hoped lower division science students could visit laboratories somehow. Kress reminded him that mandated remote instruction meant some students weren’t going to be in town. “They’re at home in China or Los Angeles or whatever. They’re not going to be allowed to be here,” Kress told him. Bahuguna sat down and worked out a novel solution: Each physics student would perform physics experiments at home.

To simulate the dozen labs in Physics 52, Bahuguna bought blank DVDs to study diffraction grading, and little polarizing filters the size of an index card from scientific supply companies. “For maybe the equivalent of about 20 bucks per student we went and bought random items,” Kress says. “Ramen came up with some cool experiments students could do at home. Granted, it wasn’t the whole big production. But at least they had these little tools. Our lab technician who would normally set up our labs got permission to come to campus and stuff envelopes, address them to students, and ship them out.”

One of the items in the student kit was a laser. “You can buy a cat toy laser for three bucks!” Kress laughs. “We said, ‘Where’s the cheapest He-Ne laser [helium-neon laser] we can find?'” A few clicks later, at an online store for pet products, and Physics 52 was on the way to supplying SJSU students with one laser each.

To supplement the home experiments, Bahuguna shared years’ worth of data from actual experiments. Students performed data analysis, making plots, drawing conclusions. Another win-win: Kress wanted to keep her lab staff doing productive work, knowing they would be needed in the future.

Kress says she loves being in the classroom. “The whole reason I wanted to become a professor was that I enjoy teaching! But I’m also very data driven. Astrophysics is an observational science; we work with the numbers we’ve got.” Those numbers said: If we need to do remote learning for a long time, we need to do it well.

College of Science Dean Michael Kaufman told an SJSU Adapt town hall meeting in October that most fall STEM labs had followed similar paths. “Safety is already a key principle for our labs,” he says, “and for the labs that we continue to do in person, COVID-19 just adds another safety component for us to reinforce.” Upper division biology and chemistry students are doing lab work in person—in numbers that allow for low density and distancing—but most other labs are online.

“The whole reason I wanted to become a professor was that I enjoy teaching,” Kress says.

Kaufman says remote labs actually gave science students experience using numerous sophisticated online tools—sometimes the same ones working scientists use every day. “They have large-scale scientific databases and networked instruments available, for different regions on Earth and even for other planets. A biology class accessed a nationally networked set of pH meters in the ocean to monitor the seasonality of agricultural impacts on ocean acidification. Marine science students are using Google Earth Pro and USGS data to construct seafloor profiles. Meteorology students are writing code to extract isobars from national weather databases, just like professional forecasters. Chem 30A students are taking data from video versions of labs, created by faculty members. Biology labs are using Labster, a virtual reality laboratory experience paid for by the Chancellor’s office, in their introductory labs, while other students use LT Labstation to make virtual Physiology measurements. Faculty members have been extremely creative about developing unique content and leveraging existing software,” Kaufman says.

As in physics, science professors in other departments also designed equally creative at-home, hands-on activities. Geology professors sent rock and mineral kits home. Biology faculty sent their students home with microscopes, slides, and petri dishes. And departments continue to innovate ways to use common items to allow at home measurements. For instance, cell phones have accelerometers, cameras, and microphones that can be used to analyze motion and sound.

Kress says teaching science during a pandemic meant respecting what science can determine when it comes to health and safety precautions. “At the end of the day, we’re physicists. We solve problems. We like pretty and elegant solutions. But this one, we have some weird boundary conditions. And this is the best we’ve got so far.

“Basically with duct tape and elbow grease and a little bit of inspiration,” Kress says, “we put something together that was pretty cool.”


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