UI biology lab classes adapt to promote student safety

Over the summer, biology department faculty members gathered to design and implement safety and health protocols for the department’s classes with labs to keep coursework as close to normal as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Ryan Adams

Van Allen Hall is seen on Monday, November 18, 2019. Van Allen is the home of the physics and astronomy department.

John Reasoner, News Reporter

Despite classes at the University of Iowa looking different than in past years, the UI Department of Biology has modified laboratory work to allow for proper social distancing and sanitation, while still allowing students to perform hands-on activities and gain experience in their coursework.

UI Director of Biology Undergraduate Studies Erin Irish, who is also an associate professor, said that in normal conditions, labs can accommodate a large number of students at once, but this was not possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To accommodate for health guidelines, Departmental Executive Officer Diane Slusarski said in an email to The Daily Iowan that biology labs have been reduced to 50-percent capacity and have taken multiple measures to allow for the safety of students and instructors.

“Our instructors and lab coordinators worked tirelessly over the summer to adapt our labs to meet safety recommendations while maintaining learning outcomes,” Slusarski said in her email.

On top of the campus-wide requirement to wear face coverings, students are expected to socially distance in lab classrooms while performing their experiments behind plexiglass barriers, she said.

Irish said to further decrease potential viral transmission between students, some labs have divided class rosters into A and B teams that alternate between performing exercises in the lab and observing these experiments over Zoom each week.

During its planning sessions this summer, she said the biology department sought input from professors, lab coordinators, and teaching assistants on how to best prepare for the return of students this fall.

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Krista Osadchuk, a graduate student working as a teaching assistant, said the department encouraged input and open communication from all instructors on how comfortable they felt with potential health protocols in their labs.

Osadchuk added she appreciated the flexibility shown by both the biology department and university administration. The university allowed the biology department freedom to craft its own procedures for how to safely conduct in-person experiments, she said.

Osadchuk said course instructors feel everything has been going as planned so far and that students have been compliant with the rules. Students in her lab have adapted with ease to the new safety protocols and naturally spaced themselves without prompting, she said.

“I think that is giving [biology students] a better experience than they would have had if there were just blanket rules that we had to follow,” she said.

Professors and course instructors have plans to quickly transition to total online learning if needed. Irish said that there would likely be an increased reliance on virtual simulations and observation of experiments conducted and filmed by course instructors.

“They are serious students,” Irish said. “They are being super careful so that they can maximize the learning that they are paying good money to do that and that they will need for their future careers.”

Osadchuk said that while her courses would likely rely on students to observe simulations and write lab reports on what they see, this type of situation would not be ideal.

“For lack of a better word, it would suck for them if because of those decisions, their education gets put on the back burner when they are following the rules, and, you know, trying as hard as they can to make this work because we all want it to,” she said.