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Due to covid-19, most of my classmates and I haven't seen a lab (Physics) for more than two years. Now, I'm in the second semester of the master's program, and soon it will be PhD. Right now, we are just watching videos and writing reports in the name of the lab course. Although I understand that the situation is like this due to Covid, it cannot go on like this forever.

I'm asking for possible ways to recommend to the university how to tackle this problem without avoiding lab classes. It might be possible that there are better ways that we don't know.

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    It's absolutely a tragedy that you and your peers haven't gotten a decent lab education. I fully blame the university for this. If they are going to offer you the ability to get a degree in a given program, the onus is entirely on them to provide you a sufficient education to be worthy of that degree. I said the same thing to our curriculum committee. If you can't respect the quality of education they get from a certain course, you shouldn't run that course. I'll not have people look down on my students, "Oh, they got their degree in the pandemic. Let's not hire them".
    – Jim
    Jan 25 at 19:00
  • @Jim who's hiring based solely on a degree these days?
    – alexw
    Jan 25 at 19:22
  • @alexw True dat
    – Jim
    Jan 25 at 19:55

7 Answers 7

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I teach experimental classes about measurements, and indeed there are solutions to allow students to do experiments in pandemic times. The applicability depends on the willingness of the university and the professors to invest money, time, imagination and effort in these solutions. Even though these solutions might not give the real experience they are much better than watching videos.

A few examples (the first three and the last were actually tested at my university):

  1. Nowadays many instruments can be controlled remotely. So an instructor can setup the lab benches in the university for the experiments and the students can run them remotely. This can be used if the experiment is complex and requires specialized instrumentation (e.g. an optical or quantum experiment). It's worth noting that also much of the experimental research that I performed in the last two years was performed remotely in this way.
  2. On the market it's possible to find portable data acquisition boards and generators for educational purposes which are reasonably cheap and that could be lent to the students, together with other material to implement at home various experiments (this is an example from Digilent). It's also possible to find software that turns your PC into a measuring instrument (a free example is this one).
  3. It's also possible to find various smartphone apps that can turn your phone in a measuring instrument with which to make physics experiments (Phyphox is a good one developed by a university).
  4. There are also books that suggest how to use Arduino and smartphones to make physics experiments (an example; disclaimer: I haven't read it).
  5. Another possibility is to allow the students to perform the experiments in person but making shifts to reduce the number of students simultaneously in the lab.
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    Imperial College in the UK shipped out small sets of equipment for most of their students: Here's an article about the chemistry department, but other departments did as well imperial.ac.uk/news/209193/… Jan 23 at 22:47
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    The issue that comes up with point 1 is that so much of the experimental skill students need to learn is precisely the bits that can't be automated - the fine optical or mechanical adjustments, the fault-finding, that kind of thing. Here it was more like your idea 5, with some remote experiments, and some sessions where one of a pair was in the lab and the other online, swapping the next week
    – Chris H
    Jan 24 at 11:46
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    @ChrisH Yes, I agree, that's the main limitation of the solution at point 1.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 24 at 11:59
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I'm a recently retired physics professor at a community college in Southern California. Our lab courses are lower-division undergrad classes, so our situation does differ from yours. But in case it's helpful to someone, here is some information about what we did to adapt from fall 2020 to fall 2021. With persistent administrative advocacy from our wonderful dean, we got funding of $200 per student to give out lab kits to our students. Here is the LaTeX source code for the manuals, which is under a CC-BY-SA license: https://github.com/bcrowell/lab_manuals . The relevant source code is in the subdirectories share, covid, and figs. I no longer maintain these lab manuals, and AFAIK the PDF files are no longer online.

I would say that our success with this was mixed. About half the faculty of our small department (including one adjunct!) worked hard over the summer of 2020 to create and test the kits. It was relatively easy to come up with lab activities for the first-semester freshman mechanics course. The second-semester electricity and magnetism class was harder, but we were able to do it through various expedients, such as using cheap automotive digital oscilloscopes. For the third-semester class it was not as practical.

Student success in all of these classes was extremely poor in my experience. Partly this was simply because student success in STEM classes was extremely poor during online instruction -- classes with decent success rates were those where instructors just gave everyone an A because of covid. Students found it very difficult to do the labs at home. I sat in zoom with them and had them point their cameras at what they were doing, but it was just incredibly awkward. I'm proud that at least some of us in my department worked hard to at least provide the best-motivated and strongest students with a pretty decent educational opportunity. The weaker students just couldn't do it.

Although I understand that the situation is like this due to Covid, it cannot go on like this forever.

From your username and the India tag, I'm guessing that you are a Korean student who is in grad school in India. I don't have enough familiarity with the conditions there to say what is appropriate. Here in the US, most schools have already been back in person for 6-12 months, but this is a rich country with universal access to vaccines. Given your own sitution, it might make sense to take a leave of absence for a couple of years, or try to transfer to a school in a country where the epidemic is already transitioning to an endemic phase, and schools have in-person labs. It's absurd to imagine completing a physics PhD without doing any real labs.

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    Informative answer, but FYI the username doesn't look Korean to me. I think it's an anime-related choice, so the student may not be a foreign student.
    – Kimball
    Jan 24 at 0:43
  • @Kimball plus OP's BS was also in India. Jan 24 at 17:30
  • It is not at all absurd to do a Physics PhD with zero labs - theoretical physics exists! The OP definitely has the option to leave their integrated PhD programme with a Master's degree and take up a different programme somewhere else, but I think it is a moot point - once they enter their PhD, they will become associated with a particular professor and lab, and that will hardly be affected by coursework labs. The missing training from their coursework labs only means that the OP has to play a bit of catch-up. Jan 25 at 10:52
  • @TamoghnaChowdhury I'm not enrolled in a theoretical physics program. Ph.D. is by no means a good time for 'Catch-up.' Labs provide an experience that amounts lots of time. Even then, it does not matter whether one does a Ph.D. or not. If there is a lab course, then one expects a lab. As @ Jim said, A lab course without a lab is not a lab course. :) Jan 26 at 5:35
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    @user152635 That's right, I'm not a foreign student and it's not my real name. Parden me, If you find it confusing. Jan 26 at 5:36
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I teach physics labs at a university. I can tell you exactly how to get a good lab education within pandemic restrictions because we have been doing it to great success.


Option 1 (moderate risk, low instructor effort):

  • Set up the labs for a small group of students to be allowed in with safe distancing practices.
  • Find out from the students which ones are able to come to campus.
  • Set up groups of students so that there is at least one student in each group that can be on campus.
  • Only one student from each group comes in. The rest in the group connect virtually to that student at the time of the lab.
  • The students at home are responsible for the majority of data collection as well as deciding the course of action to take in the lab
  • The student in the lab is only responsible for operating the equipment and reporting results. They should not be deciding next steps or thinking about what to do.
  • Adjustable webcams are necessary for the students at home to get a good sense of what is happening.

This method is what I use in most cases. It is important that the student in the lab not be the one to decide their course of action. We find those in the lab learn the best regardless because they get to handle the equipment personally. To keep them engaged and thinking about the lab (and thus, maximize their learning potential), the students at home should be responsible for most of the thinking about what to do. This also helps the lab go faster. Thinking takes longer than not thinking, so if the student in the lab has to operate the equipment AND do the thinking, it will take forever. The students at home aren't doing much anyway, let them do the mental stuff.

When I used this method, the student who came in always learned as much as or more than pre-pandemic times (understandable given it is no different to them). The students at home report nearly as much learning as pre-pandemic times and scored well on lab tests about comprehension of concepts and equipment. This is the ideal method for me, if you can have at least a few students in the lab.


Option 2 (low risk, high instructor effort):

Okay, the instructors will hate me for this, but I've done it and it works.

  • Very similar to option 1 except no students come into the lab. All students in each group connect virtually with instructor/lab staff on site.
  • Instructor, TA, or lab technician (whatever is appropriate for your situation) operates equipment for each lab group individually.
  • They may guide students if necessary, but should only do exactly what students tell them to (collect wrong data if so instructed).
  • Students must decide how to proceed and what to collect. Lab staff are only there as "virtual-presence device"
  • Each lab group needs to be scheduled at individual lab time. This takes a large amount of work and time from instructor/lab staff.

When I used this method, the students noted that it felt a lot like they were actually in the lab doing it themselves. They had to be just as engaged and learned almost as much. It lacks an actual hands-on component, but is suitable if an in-person presence is impossible.


What if you can't get anyone on campus to operate the equipment?

I cannot stress enough that you cannot offer any reasonable laboratory education without any party having at least some access to the laboratory and its equipment. A lab course minus the lab is a nothing course.

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  • Note, I did not include "take home" experiments because I despise them. I have never encountered a take-home lab that was both a) sufficiently high calibre to be used in university courses and b) cheap enough to be scaled up to every student in a course without requiring more money than a standard university would be willing to afford. They are generally awful and I do everything I can to avoid contact with them. Also, those lab simulation things aren't labs, they are arbitrary video games that have little to no educational value in a university lab course
    – Jim
    Jan 25 at 16:24
  • Second note: two years of using these methods and no recorded COVID-19 cases in my labs to date. I'd say it's possible to do this safely
    – Jim
    Jan 25 at 16:28
  • That's a good way! I suppose. I will suggest this. Jan 26 at 5:06
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Half-answer short of time and equipment to write a proper one. If someone would expand on this more I'd be glad to give all credit and remove my answer.

Depending on the focus of the lab, you could move the lessons onto a simulated platform. There are multiple solutions, varying in ease of use, coding difficulties, and being free or not; but this is often doable.

As an example, I'm a member of the team that develops VINYIL (Virtual Neutron and x-raY Laboratory) which basically consists of two fully open-source Python modules: SimEx for optical/x-ray, and McStasScript for neutron beamlines. Using these, you can simulate complex experiments from start to end, including all parameters, noise, artifacts and limitations of a real-life instrument, all this in an easy to follow Jupyter notebook.

All I mean with saying this is that there are certainly very advanced yet easy-to-use tools to simulate an experiment with all the associated quirks, at a level more than sufficient for a student lab. I know of such tools in my own field, but there must be similar ones for many of your experiments.

Moving to simulations and developing the corresponding codes needs a substantial effort, probably involving TAs and colleagues, for sure; but once it's done, you get a zero-equipment lab class that can be online without an issue.

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Faced with the same challenge for chemistry labs, a colleague and I developed "Quarantine Chem Labs" a set of experiments that can be carried out with stuff commonly found around a home or apartment. You can see videos of the experiments on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAtdv_YQrTu6shv3QHo7URA and full write-ups suitable for distributing to students on the companion web site: https://quarantinechemlabs.wixsite.com/mysite/labs Most of the labs have a distinct physical-chemistry flavor and could be suitable for physics classes as well.

I know of a materials science Prof. who has done something similar. He has students produce stress-strain curves by placing strips cut from a plastic bag under load. He also has them grow crystals, etc.

The concept translates well to mechanics. Lots of "measurement devices" are readily available. Most everyone has access to a ruler, and a protractor, and has a stopwatch on their cell phone, and a camera... It's easy to make a pendulum with a length of string and a keychain. E&M labs are little more challenging to devise, but with some of the Quarantine Chem Labs address this challenge as well.

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This is a long term solution only and is only applicable to such things as coursework and where the science is well known with predictable results. It won't work, most likely for doctoral level research experimentation.

But, it is possible, though costly and time consuming, to build realistic simulators that let a student learn both lab technique (perhaps imperfectly) and how the science works. A truly realistic one would introduce random effects as occur in real experiments, of course. And, such things will only take you so far.

But, at the moment, the need for such things has only been obvious for a relatively short time; too short to expect that such simulations are readily available. Some do exist, I'd expect, but not with the necessary sophistication to foster insight in students. There are probably some adequate simulations available in physics and chemistry, for example. Biology and pharmacology are harder. But these are, again, helpful for coursework, but likely not for serious research.

And, the people who know best how such things work aren't the same people capable of creating such simulations themselves. It is, itself a team process with a number of different skills contributing.

I suspect that the need for this will continue into the future, whether we finally find a cure for COVID or not since the disruption has caused people to rethink how courses are delivered. We might not ever go back to the pre-covid world.

Some inducements are probably necessary to get people to build and refine such simulations. And some inducements to get professors to consider using what is currently available in the short term.


Other solutions are possible at the fringe, though also difficult to use. Labs where only a single person works are probably too expensive in most cases. Housing a group of experimenters together so that they become something like a "family" is also probably too radical to adopt, though some sports leagues do this so that the game can go on.

At the moment, we need to "think outside the box" but also plan for a possibly disrupted future. Personally, I doubt that Omicron is the last of the variants and there is no guarantee that the next one will be of less concern.

It might require some push from university administration to get some collaboration between various professors in the experimental sciences and those in computer science. Some of the simulations would be good upper level student projects in CS.

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    A simulation to learn lab techniques in chemistry? I might be old-fashioned, but I cannot imagine how that is supposed to work. So I really hope that it will not be the new standard. Jan 23 at 16:29
  • @Snijderfrey, I hope so too, actually. But desperate times ... Think about the sophistication that is possible in video games these days.
    – Buffy
    Jan 23 at 16:34
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    Simulators for all sort of things do exist already, even fairly advanced ones, but there are many aspects of experiments that cannot be simulated and suggesting to substitute experiments with simulations is bad advice (and I typically hear this only from people who have never performed real experiments). I used simulators two years ago, right at the beginning of the pandemic, as an emergency backup because the pandemic started just one week before the start of the class and the university was shut down, but now we are no longer in unknown situation and there are better solutions.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 23 at 16:48
  • @MassimoOrtolano, actually, I don't suggest substitution of one for the other. But if it is impossible to do what you want, then you may be forced to do what you must. I don't suggest this as an ideal. And I also realize that this is imperfect. But at the moment the perfect is the enemy of the good. Look at the Omicron case maps and note that deaths are still rising.
    – Buffy
    Jan 23 at 16:52
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    Simulators are antithetical to the purpose of lab instruction. In the lectures you teach the students "this is right because trust me". In the labs, they see that it is right because reality backs you up. A simulator will perform the way a person programs it to. That's the same as "this is right because trust the programmer". It doesn't represent reality, just someone's version of it. At the start of the pandemic, I chose to cancel labs rather than use a simulator because I see no difference.
    – Jim
    Jan 25 at 16:34
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Move to another university for your PhD

If your university has been closed for two years in a row, there is little chance that you will get a good PhD education there. Use the chance to find a better place.

Contact the student union

For the remaining part of your Master studies, you can try to contact the student union (assuming you have one). If enough students share your view, they may be able to push for on-campus lab courses. If that does not work, then you can suggest the options in the other answer.

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    I don’t this one can make such sweeping statements your first suggestions. Jan 23 at 15:20
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    And the second one compromises safety.
    – Buffy
    Jan 23 at 16:23
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    The university was hardly closed for the last two years - it is primarily a postgraduate research institution and while they decided to send back all undergraduates and master's students from March to November 2020, it has been completely functional since then. Not to mention that the majority of lab experience in a Master's is earned by doing a research project in a particular research group, which is not affected by what coursework labs are. This is definitely a problem for undergrads, but for Master's, in the OP's university, it is a moot point. Jan 25 at 10:50
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    (Disclaimer: I am an alumnus of the OP's current university, having graduated in 2021 - so I know what I am talking about) Jan 25 at 10:50
  • @TamoghnaChowdhury well, I answered the question as asked, saying that if a university was closed to students for two years, then it is not a good place for a PhD. If your university was not closed for two years, then this answer does not apply to your university.
    – wimi
    Jan 27 at 10:11

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