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For ten months my laboratory has sat empty and dark. But it is never quiet. An aggressive air handling system has covered the vacant benches with humming and whirring through nearly a year of distance learning. My institution went fully online in March, like most other schools, but we continued to be primarily online throughout the fall of 2020. Therefore, the space where I would typically teach human biology to social work majors, microbiology to nursing majors, and genetics to biology majors been on an extended furlough.

I still taught all these ‘labs’ but they have been virtual. In the spring I offered my students hastily prepared virtual learning experiences, but in the fall I was able to intentionally design online labs. Digital labs have undeniable advantages for students. First, my students were able to experience all new laboratories this fall, each one designed and centered around the key learning objectives of the week. I found that making it impossible to do what I have always done is a good way to generate fresh ideas and as I wrote activities, I returned to the core learning objectives. My virtual labs were probably more focused than their in-person predecessors had been.

Second, the in virtual lab activities my students were able to spend much more time on the theories behind the experiments than possible for students running experiments. I have taught bacterial transformation to hundreds of students, but I am only confident that these distant students really understand why it works. My online microbiology students have never performed a Gram stain, but they can explain why they turn some bacteria pink and others purple better than most of my previous students.

Third, my online students were never lost in technical details. Every laboratory professor has seen beautifully crafted experiments lost in questions about how many grams of this or microliters of that should be used. In my experience, undergraduates focus so heavily on the method that they can lose sight of the scientific question being asked. In virtual labs, I was able to keep the scientific question front and center because they never had to measure anything at all.

But there is something lost in a virtual laboratory, and at its core I think it is about hospitality, discipleship, and community.

Walking into a laboratory can be intimidating. For so many of our students, particularly first-generation college students and students of color, walking through the doors of a laboratory can feel like trespassing. In order to remember that feeling, about once a year, I try to attend our campus’ late-night worship service. Students are welcoming, but I can’t shake the feeling that I just don’t belong. In the lab, I have the opportunity to welcome students into the space and make them feel so comfortable that within a few weeks, they feel at home. I never figured out how to offer this sense of hospitality through virtual lab activities.

Online labs also miss out on a sense of discipleship. When Jesus’ disciples followed him throughout ancient Israel for three years, they were not just learning his teachings. Their education did not focus on theory. Instead the disciples learned to do what Jesus did. As I said above, thanks to online labs, my students really understand the Gram stain, but I couldn’t show them how I hold the microscope slide when staining cells. I didn’t have the opportunity to correct the angle of their wrist while they rinse of the slide. I could touch their skin with the warm slide to demonstrate how hot it needs to be to heat fix. These are embodied experiences that are only possible in physical proximity to one another. In lab, I am trying to train whole, embodied students – not just their minds.

Finally, and maybe above all, I missed the community that is formed through waiting together. Virtual labs are probably a more efficient use of time than in-person labs because the virtual labs skip the waiting. I have yet to see a virtual lab that requires students to sit quietly at the computer screen for 45 minutes to allow the virtual gel to run. But something amazing happens while a physical gel runs. Students return to their lab bench and start to talk together. At first the conversations are about the science, but eventually it just becomes conversation. I learn who the students are, what classes they enjoy most, what they hope to do after graduation, how much they like (or dislike) their roommates, which parent is dealing with a health crisis, and how the science we are learning is impacting their faith. By waiting together, in-person, through what seems like inefficient dead time, we become a community.

Very soon, I will turn on the lights in my lab and welcome a new crop of students into the space. I can’t imagine that masks, limited numbers, and physical distancing will make it easier to offer hospitality, demonstrate discipleship, or form community, but I can’t overstate how grateful I am for the chance to try. My hope is to retain the lessons of virtual labs and lean into the benefits of embodied labs. It is possible to do experiments together that center on the core learning objectives of the lab. Teaching online has reminded me of the value of a firm theoretical understanding of the methods we use, and I commit to investing more time into assuring my students have that understanding.

And if my students get lost in the technical details of the experiment, as they certainly will, I am grateful that we can find our way back out, together.

For more about how slowing down helps foster Christian learning see David Smith’s earlier Christ Animating Learning blog post:

Clayton D. Carlson

Trinity Christian College
Clayton D. Carlson is a professor of biology at Trinity Christian College.