Pre-pandemic, students working as science lab partners, huddled around a microscope together, was the norm.
This year, the reality for science classes is just one student per lab station.
No matter the subject, classes don’t look the way they once did. Teachers, students and staff have had to adapt to the guidelines put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but social distancing and not sharing supplies can pose a unique challenge for classes like science that have labs typically done with partners or in groups.
Gary Sims, head of the science department at Edgewood High School in Ellettsville, said the two things that are affecting classes the most right now are only being able to meet once a week in person and not being able to share equipment and materials.
“Just once a week is tough for anything, I mean, that’s a big deal, and then trying to determine what labs you can do to make it worthwhile for that one day,” Sims said. “Then make sure they get the content, that’s always a challenge.”
Earlier this month, it was announced that EHS students, among the rest of Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corp. students, can return to in-school learning four days a week starting Oct. 19. But right now, students at EHS are split into two groups, with one group physically coming to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other physically coming to school on Thursdays and Fridays, with each group e-learning the days they aren’t there. Due to the school’s block schedule, teachers only see students from each group one day a week. Students who are all online participate in the school’s virtual academies, which operate separately.
“That almost has to be our lab day if we’re going to do one,” said Sims, who is in his 39th year of teaching and teaches biology and human body systems. “It has to be on that day we’re here, so you’ve got to kind of schedule around that.”
Sims said normally, two students would share a microscope for a lab and materials would be laid out for the day. The next classes would come in and be able to use the same materials and same microscope.
Sims said even before the pandemic, he’d always go through and clean off the eyepiece, but now he has to wipe down the whole microscope and only one student can use it at a time. There has to be an entirely new microscope slide for each individual student, he said.
“So that’s six times,” Sims said. “A lab that I’d normally do once, I’ve got to do that same thing six times because we’ve got half the kids and we’re one-on-one with a microscope.”
Sheila Wright, a family and consumer sciences teacher who is in her 21st year teaching at EHS, said she has seven lab stations, so in classes larger than that, students have to wait their turn. This semester, Wright is teaching human and social services careers, nutrition science careers, fashion and textiles careers and child development.
Wright said typically in a nutrition science lab, three people are in a lab at a time, with one student prepping the food items, one cooking and one cleaning up. Those roles rotate with each lab. Now, students are learning to be independent much more quickly, she said.
Since only one student can do a lab at a time, labs have been modified to be shorter in order for two people to be able to do a lab within the 80-minute class period, Wright said. Everything has to be sanitized in between.
“They can’t handle a bag of flour or anything, so I have to put out pre-measured amounts that they need for their food lab ahead of time,” Wright said. “They just come and pick up a plate or bowl that already has the pre-measured amounts in it.”
With the hybrid model, Wright and Sims are providing content and activities for students at home that complement what happens when they’re in the classroom.
“The prep time has been twice as much,” Sims said. “You’ve got to provide two lessons, one for in school and one for home.”
This week, Sims said he had students at home do a virtual gel electrophoresis activity.
“It’s not the same,” he said. “It’s not even close, but they get an idea what we’re going to do when they come to class.”
Virtually, they may learn about the coarse adjustment knob on the microscope, changing from low power to high power on a microscope or what restriction enzymes are, so when they come to class, they have a heads up on those things, Sims said.
“The balance between the kids that are in class and the ones that are at home, that has been hectic,” Sims said. “It has been hard and it has been tiring.”
Wright said she answers emails coming in from students who are at home as quickly as she can during 10-minute passing periods.
“I check my emails to make sure that I’m keeping up with the students that are home so they’re not suspended or stranded without being able to move forward on their assignments,” she said.
Because of COVID-19, some assignments just aren’t happening, Sims said, since they require working as a group. For example, in human body systems, there’s an activity where students have a set of bones laid out and they have to measure the bones and the angle of the bones to determine its ethnicity and gender. That’s not happening because it can’t, Sims said. For Wright’s child development course, students usually bring a 2- to 5-year-old child to school for the day to get hands-on experience with being a caregiver for a day, but that isn’t happening this year, either.
Through it all, Wright said the bottom line is teachers are doing whatever it takes to make it work.
“We want students to still have the best, the most experience that they possibly can,” Wright said. “I worked a lot of extra time to rework some of the projects and rework the curriculum so we can make it work. That’s all we can do.”